Roots Watch: Cantwell’s Merle, and Everybody’s

Barry Mazor | September 12th, 2013

haggardcoverAll things considered (and with Merle there’s a lot to consider) it seems to me that there’s no one in the long, wide story of country music who’s proved to have been more gifted or contributed more to it over time than Merle Haggard—as songwriter, singer, bandleader, record maker, and champion of musical heroes. For all of that, his contributions have rarely been assessed in detail, let alone at book length, even as the umpteenth tome on Johnny Cash or Hank Williams or the songs of Bob Dylan arrives in the chattersphere. There are reasons why that’s been so, mostly having to do with Hag’s too-common reduction to “the ex-con who sang ‘Okie from Muskogee,’” both by those who, with that cartoonish image in mind, have never given him a second thought or listen, and those who, starting from the same image, anoint him an icon of resentment needing no clarification, as the patron saint of ornery cusses.

Now Haggard’s panoply of gifts, the texture of this contributions, the response of his audiences, and the background story behind them are all have been taken on by critic and journalist David Cantwell, engagingly and enlighteningly, in his new book Merle Haggard: The Running Kind University of Texas Press), as the latest entry in their American Music Series.

If you’ve read Cantwell’s work before, back in No Depression magazine (where he was a senior editor, as I was) for instance, or as co-author of Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, you’ll know that he has a particular gift—well put to work here— for bringing home on the page the moment-by-moment, sometimes beat-by-beat feel of a record, as produced, or a singer’s interpretation of a lyric, as sung. That’s difficult enough to do—but a high percentage of the time he also manages to connect the dots between those musical choices, the music maker’s life context, and our varied ways of experiencing them, and with a level of clarity, conviction and persuasiveness on which more than a few of us who try to make such connections could go to school.

As the book’s title suggests, Cantwell finds a key to understanding Merle’s ever-evolving stances, attitudes and musical fixations, and more than a little of his grand original song catalogue, in the refrigerator car-raised Californian’s charged, obsessive reflexes and swinging door reflections on being entrapped and trying, often failing, to break free (of cells, lovers, attitudes), on standing firm, being hounded and bolting like crazy, on being judged and judging. This is a portrait of creative genius—in the hands of a man who long seemed to take an internal prison named “Merle Haggard” along with him no matter how fast and far he’d run, who, in fact revealed to an interviewer a few years back that he loved sleeping on his endlessly traveling tour bus because the bedroom was the size of a cell.

Cantwell successfully avoids a common trap himself, that of of fixated lyric analysis; the book not only pays as much close attention to Merle’s swinging crooner’s vocal style and actual evolving sounds (he was, after all the first country musician ever to appear on the cover of the jazz bible Downbeat) as his words, but gives ample space to such key sidemen as James Burton, Roy Nichols and Norm Hamlet, to one-time wife and long-time singing partner Bonnie Owens, to one-time wife and sometime co-writer Leona Williams, and to Capitol years producers as Ken Nelson, among others, who played important roles in making those sounds happen.

Chapter by chapter and theme by theme, the book demonstrates how many easy assumptions about Merle and his music prove inadequate if looked at just a little closer—the supposedly  “autobiographical” songs that lean heavily on imagination, or turn out to be ones written by others, the nostalgia for Okie and Depression experiences learned in large measure at second hand, the supposedly “stripped down” Bakersfield sounds that so often made use of orchestrated Nashville Sound elements, the confessional singer-songwriter of “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” sometimes obscured but never broken love of pop, the consummate country singer who so often sang of big cities.

Cantwell takes up Haggard’s breakout (and entrapment) as the “fightin’ side” icon, in what he refers to memorably as Merle’s “Muskogee Moment,” in considerable and fascinating detail, digging into the elements of heartfelt belligerence, expedient exploitation, identity politics, controversy and unexpected levels of acceptance that all went into making it what it became. And he demonstrates again and again how, as much as a Bob Dylan or James Brown or Marvin Gaye, Haggard’s records, over decades, have been signs of their times that could last.

You should experience the places Cantwell goes with that Muskogee Moment and more; you should, I’m trying to make unequivocally clear here, read and own this book. Merle Haggard can make you cry, laugh, gulp, dance, stand tall or cringe all on his own; in Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, David Cantwell does as much as anyone ever has to show us how that all works, how it happens. Pick it up and you’ll start loving Merle again, today.

And by the way: I recommend the new 2-CD extended re-release by Bear Family of Jerry Lee Lewis’s 1974 Southern Roots album, arguably his last great session, overseen by the equally wild “ragin’ Cajun” Huey P. Meaux with good effect, and featuring the likes of Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, the Memphis horns and Tony Joe White behind him, Killer takes on Memphis Soul and R&B in the middle of his country period, and, always fascinating tidbits of free-floating Jerry Lee studio commentary. Also: Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay’s fine Before the World Was Made, featuring infectious modern country duets in an updated George Jones-Melba Montgomery mode.

  1. Janice Brooks
    September 12, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Nice tie for Brennon and Noel.

  2. Eric Banister
    September 12, 2013 at 9:07 am

    I can’t recommend Cantwell’s book highly enough. It is a fantastic analysis of a fantastic artist.

  3. Dave D.
    September 12, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    This book looks like a must-have for any Merle fan. Hopefully, my pre-order of Before the World Was Made shows up soon.

  4. Luckyoldsun
    September 12, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Is the Cantwell book an “authorized biography”–where he (presumably) interviewed Haggard extensively and got access to all his papers and tapes? Or is it a book that was written with limited (or no) co-operation from Merle?

  5. Rick
    September 12, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    I was raised on Merle’s records back in the mid to late 1960’s and my respect for his musical accomplishments continues to grow. I’ve always considered him the greatest male country singer songwriter of all time with no disrespect to Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr., Jimmie Rodgers, et al.

    It was a fortuitous happenstance that Merle was raised and stayed in Bakersfield at a time when it’s amazing music scene was in full swing in the 1950’s. That connection led to him working in Wynn Stewart’s band in Wynn’s club in Las Vegas in the early 60’s (after he got out of prison) from which Merle decided to launch a solo career. Merle asked Wynn for a song and got “Sing a Sad Song” which was Merle’s first single to chart well on country radio.

    Because of his musical legacy I overlook Merle’s political comments and especially the fact he likes Hillary Clinton so much! I chalk it up to the influence of his current wife, old age, and too much boozing and hard drugs in the early days (up through the 1980’s!…lol).

  6. Barry Mazor
    September 13, 2013 at 8:35 am

    It’s not a biography as such, as I’ve tried to make clear. It’s a critical discussion that pulls in aspects of Merle’s life. Cantwell’s interviewed Merle on a number of occasions, but since the focus is on his creations, that’s a very secondary matter..You will find, when you buy the book, relevant comments from Merle quoted when helpful, from a number of sources..

  7. Barry Mazor
    September 13, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Merle overlooks your political comments, too, Rick–as does, far as I can tell, practically everybody.

  8. TX Music Jim
    September 13, 2013 at 11:30 am

    We have our political and religous beleifs, all of us, even Merle. For some of us those views evolve over time. So what. If I am a fan of some one’s music their views about polotics or religon or anything else, don’t matter !

  9. Arlene
    September 13, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    [I}t seems to me that there’s no one in the long, wide story of country music who’s proved to have been more gifted or contributed more to it over time than Merle Haggard—as songwriter, singer, bandleader, record maker, and champion of musical heroes.

    I don’t disagree but I’m undecided– perhaps Willie Nelson merits equal consideration.

  10. Barry Mazor
    September 13, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    I would suggest looking at Willie’s actual song catalogue versus Merles as a place to start, Arlene; Willie’s been far far less productive. But my point is not to denigrate other artists like Willie who’ve made great contributions; it’s to make the point that Merles’ often get under-discussed–and that I’m glad David Cantwell is discussing it.

  11. Luckyoldsun
    September 13, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    Until there was Johnny Cash resurgence with “Walk the Line” it seemed that every other country song mentioned “Haggard and Jones”– and all the singers claimed to be followers of theirs. And they’ve been reissuing Haggard’s complete Capitol albums on CD over and over. (Though it does seem that his mid- and late-career material has become more obscure.) I never had a sense that Haggard is under-discussed.

  12. Arlene
    September 13, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Barry- I never thought you were intending to denigrate any other artists. I was just struck that there are a limited number of people who have made significant contributions in all five of the categories you identified, and depending on how much weight one ascribess to each of those categories, in my view, Willie is in the conversation. In comparing his song catalog to Merle’s, I’m tempted to paraphrase Spencer Tracy’s line about Katherine Hepburn: “Not much meat on her, but what there is, is cherce” [choice].

    I haven’t given a great deal of thought to the subject, but it’s easier to contemplate than the legal argument in this brief I’m supposed to be drafting….

  13. Paul W Dennis
    September 13, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    I’m really looking forward to reading Cantwell’s book. Too little has been written about Haggard relative to some other artists. Over the years, I wore out several sets of Hag’s early vinyl Capitol albums

  14. Country fan
    December 5, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Merle is one of the greatest talents in music.

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