A few years ago I caught a triple bill featuring Willie Nelson, Ray Price and Merle Haggard. It was a great show. Willie was Willie, Ray was the consummate smoothie, and Merle nearly shocked the corndog out of my hand.
In his early 70s then and looking like Abe Lincoln’s backwoods brother, Haggard kept pulling out hit after hit. Those who thought it began with “Mama Tried” and ended with “Okie From Muskogee” couldn’t be more wrong. Meanwhile, his guitar playing was jazzy and jagged; and all these years I had the man figured for a mere strummer.
There will be no shortchanging the grizzled country star after David Cantwell’s astute and entertaining “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind” (University of Texas, 282 pages). In it, the music writer mixes biography with incisive critical assessments to deliver a full portrait of the man, his music and the forces that shaped them.
Haggard has released more than 80 albums over the past half century (not counting nearly as many anthologies) and scored 38 No. 1 country hits. The 76-year-old is still out there touring and is scheduled to perform at this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony.
Instead of producing what he calls a doorstop biography of “the Hag,” Cantwell has given us a monograph of sorts, focusing heavily on the hits-laded first half of the artist’s career. The goal, he writes, is to put Haggard in his proper historical and social context.
The title, “The Running Kind,” gives us a sense of Cantwell’s guiding premise. He provides an in-depth look at the upbringing the singer was eager to escape from, summoning John Steinbeck, Dorothy Lange and Woody Guthrie in order to paint a picture of the singer’s early days in Dust Bowl-era California.
As a young man, Haggard, often in trouble, was convicted for a brain-dead 1957 robbery attempt, and after trying to escape from serving time landed in San Quentin. There, he acted the punk, until coming into contact with a death row inmate and deciding perhaps he needed to change his life. Haggard was paroled in 1960 and within five years was taking aim at the top of the country charts.
One fact comes shining through “The Running Kind”: Haggard doesn’t like to be pinned down. Able to throw down a stomping country backbeat as part of the Bakersfield sound or fiddle around with some bluegrass or croon some gospel, the man has traveled many musical roads. Warm as a Lone Star left in the sun when he delivers a haunting ballad, Haggard can seem rather prickly in person: a defiant, live-free-or-die type spoiling for a fight.
He’s often branded as part of the outlaw country movement of the 1970s, but after his early years he had a fraught relationship to his identity as an ex-con. Cantwell points out that of the 300 songs Haggard recorded early on for Capitol, only about 13 have to do with being behind bars.
“The Running Kind” also looks into Haggard’s “Muskogee Moment,” when the No. 1 hit referencing the decent and patriotic ways of a small Oklahoma town became the singer’s theme song. Some members of Haggard’s band remember the song’s genesis being inspired by a few passed-around hits of the demon weed as the tour bus rolled through Oklahoma. No matter how it came about, “Okie from Muskogee” became a huge single and an anthem to hippie haters and rightward leaners everywhere. The song became an early example of identity politics, and Haggard soon got used to mixing it up concerning the big topics of the day.
“As much as any American musical artist, and certainly as much as any country artist, Haggard, in his music, has intersected with the great issues of his times - those surrounding class and race, war and peace, and, most of all, freedom,” Cantwell writes.
The book tracks along Haggard’s major albums, interjecting bits of his life story along the way. Cantwell’s knowledge of the country icon’s catalog is that of a hardcore fan, but his critical stance is clear-eyes and objective. He recounts the high times when the Hag could seemingly do no wrong, as well as his lost decade of the 1990s, when the hot country radio format pushed the old man aside in favor of guys with hats and gals named Shania. Also of interest is a short chapter where Cantwell compares and contrasts the lives and careers of Hag and his contemporary Johnny Cash.
“Merle Haggard: The Running Kind” gives this singular country artist his due and treats fans to a deep and appreciative trek through his songs.
Now, where’d I put that corndog?
John Winters writes about books for GateHouse Media. He lives in Massachusetts. Always more at johnjwinters.com / FB johnjwinters / @jjw12562.