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