If that song is the only song that you know by Merle Haggard, then you need to immerse yourself in his catalog. He is a Hall of Fame songwriter, with a body of work that sits atop the country and western oeuvre. Likewise, if all you know of Merle Haggard is that he wrote that song, then you owe it to yourself to read David Cantwell’s Merle Haggard: The Running Kind.
Cantwell’s book is not so much a biography of Haggard, as it is a biography of his songwriting and recorded output. Haggard has written two autobiographies, but here Cantwell casts his work as the central character. More importantly, it provides the all-important context — both musically and culturally —that made these songs so timeless and explains why Hag casts such a long shadow over country music songwriting. In that regard, it stands with books such as Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters and the Billie Holiday tale of Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song by David Margolick. Context matters, particularly for artists.
There is a lot of musical breakdown; guitar breaks, the subtle differences between Haggard and Buck Owen’s “Bakersfield” sound and thorough examinations of his influences, specifically Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills. But in my opinion, what makes this book tick is how Cantwell weaves together Merle’s story and his songwriting, with the story of America — clearly in its growing pains stage — and how they fit together. Or not. We all know that Merle “turned 21 in prison,” but he was not “doing life without parole.” It is also true that Haggard had a life-changing experience witnessing Johnny Cash’s (recorded) show at San Quentin. And the protagonist going to meet his maker in “Sing Me Back Home “ is, in fact, a true story. But, as Cantwell points out, many of the songs that are identified with Haggard and his life story were not, in fact, penned by him. The fact that he could turn other people’s words so forcefully into his own narrative is a skill, and one that would further sharpen his own songwriting and, ultimately, brand-building.
And then, of course, there is that song. For many people, on both sides of the fence, it is “Okie From Muskogee” that defines Merle Haggard. And, although it’s been long-rumored the song was written in jest, Cantwell offers up significant evidence that if not a joke, the song was not the line in the sand it appeared to be. Haggard did, in fact, smoke marijuana, although apparently not in Muskogee. It is one of my least favorite songs in Haggard’s repertoire but, ironically, my favorite chapter in the book. Cantwell’s analysis of American culture, and the gap between C&W and rock’n’roll audiences, is spot on. Likewise, the chapters on his follow-up hit “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which curiously doubled down on his “Conservatism,” and the inter-racial love story single “Irma Jackson,” (sadly shelved for obvious reasons) are both essential, for both the songs and the insight into the culture that existed at the time; one catapulted the former song into the top of the charts, while essentially killing the other because of the subject matter.
I haven’t read either of Merle’s autobiographies; I’m sure they are wonderful because Merle is a storyteller at heart. However, upon his recent passing I wanted to delve deeper into the man, the myth and, most importantly, the music and David Cantwell’s book provides a unique take in blending all three, providing a fitting epitaph into the complex artist that was “the Hag.”
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