An incisive, critical analysis of one of the most complicated and misunderstood artists in country music.
Cantwell describes this as “the attempt of this critic and more or less lifelong Merle Haggard fan at writing a monograph on the man’s music,” admitting that this is not the in-depth, full-scale biography that his subject deserves. As the co-author of Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles (2003), Cantwell combines sharp critical insights and encyclopedic knowledge of the music with a fan’s passion, as he provides a personal engagement with Haggard’s discography, along with context of the times. The author shows how the politics of the man most famous for “Okie from Muskogee” and the more belligerent “Fightin’ Side of Me” resist pigeonholing and how many contradictions one confronts in his music. He’s a country artist who served time but sang of prison less often than singers who never did. He’s a country artist who sings often of the city and refuses to romanticize the bucolic. He recognizes that the term “Okie” (which he isn’t, though his parents were) is an insult before he turns it into a source of pride (and Cantwell is very good at illuminating the fragility and ambiguity of the pride running through Haggard’s music). Occasionally, the assessment seems a little over-the-top, as the author writes that on his late-’60s albums, “Haggard’s writing is as smart in its way as Dylan’s at the same time or Lennon and McCartney’s, his singing is as powerful as Aretha Franklin’s or Van Morrison’s,” and he proceeds to encompass the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown in his comparative superlatives. But for an artist who has been dismissed too easily for too long, such perspective provides a dialogue-opening corrective.
Both the Haggard fanatic and the casual country music fan will find their appreciation enriched.