Merle Haggard: The Running Kind (American Music (University of Texas))
Merle Haggard has enjoyed artistic and professional triumphs few can match. He’s charted more than a hundred country hits, including thirty-eight number ones. He’s released dozens of studio albums and another half dozen or more live ones, performed upwards of ten thousand concerts, been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and seen his songs performed by artists as diverse as Lynryd Skynyrd, Elvis Costello, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, the Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan. In 2011 he was feted as a Kennedy Center Honoree. But until now, no one has taken an in-depth look at his career and body of work.
In Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, David Cantwell takes us on a revelatory journey through Haggard’s music and the life and times out of which it came. Covering the entire breadth of his career, Cantwell focuses especially on the 1960s and 1970s, when Haggard created some of his best-known and most influential music, which helped invent the America we live in today. Listening closely to a masterpiece-crowded catalogue (including songs such as “Okie from Muskogee,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried,” “Working Man Blues,” “Kern River,” “White Line Fever,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and “If We Make It through December,” among many more), Cantwell explores the fascinating contradictions—most of all, the desire for freedom in the face of limits set by the world or self-imposed—that define not only Haggard’s music and public persona but the very heart of American culture.
“The Worst Is Yet to Come,” and yet again throughout one of his own songs, the peevish and accusing “You Don’t Even Try.” On his less peevish but more accusing “If I’d Left It Up to You,” he channels Wynn Stewart. Like almost any country album of the period, Strangers is topped off with covers—Merle’s go at Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor over You” paces about its room with considerable agitation. But at this point in his career, even Merle’s originals draw heavily upon other styles and songs.
shared struggle. I know that a change is gonna come. Half a decade later, “Hungry Eyes” cries a reply, but from his dead-or-dying end of the 1960s, Merle Haggard doesn’t sound confident; he sounds alone. He’s seen people who prayed for a better life, too, he insists, people with faith just as strong. But I don’t recall a change of any size. He sure as hell recalls the unanswered prayers, though, and he’ll never forget those eyes. Cantwell_4809_BK.indd 13 7/8/13 11:50 AM 2 The Roots of His
Instead: They might’ve called me a nigger lover. This explanation, notice, finds Haggard neither endorsing nor condemning the racism behind that slur, but it does show him accepting it. That, it seems, is why “Irma Jackson” couldn’t be his next single. It was a real-life outcome that mirrored the shelved relationship in the song itself. What if Merle had followed “Okie from Muskogee” with “Irma Jackson”? According to music journalist Daniel Cooper, Merle called Johnny Cash and played the song for
stepped in it and running as fast as he could into new apolitical work. After a pair of live albums that had become flashpoints in the cultural present, Haggard’s next album was going to be all about the music—and music from the past to boot, specifically the swinging sounds of Merle’s boyhood hero, Bob Wills. This bit of Haggard lore isn’t quite right for a couple of reasons, the most obvious being that the time line doesn’t work. The Wills project, inspired partly by the bandleader’s 1968
work in the oil, fruit, and cotton fields of the Pacific Coast. They hungered for Something Better, but would have settled for Things They Really Needed. Frequently they got neither, because “another class of people put [them] somewhere just below.” More than just, actually. The California establishment has always worked overtime to ensure that its cheap immigrant laborers of the moment—the Chinese in the nineteenth century, Mexicans in the 1920s and ’30s, and straight on through to today—were