When David Cantwell set out to write a book about Merle Haggard, the influential country musician whose expansive career includes an oeuvre of over 80 albums, he wanted to shift the focus away from what’s typically expected from the genre. Rather than offer up a strictly biographical account, replete with historical anecdotes and trivia concerning the singer-songwriter’s life, Cantwell sought to create something more concrete: an ode to the music itself, with special attention paid to the sounds, arrangements, lyrics and themes that comprise Haggard’s vast catalog. The result is Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, an engrossing look at the man behind the music—and the music in front of the man.
Cantwell, who considers himself a music critic rather than journalist, pays fair dues to Haggard, whose roots are every much a part of his music as his storytelling nature. From Haggard’s interest in trains and the railway imagery that crops up in his work, to his youth spent as a delinquent and his eventual incarceration at San Quentin, Cantwell zeroes in on the elliptical nature of Haggard’s life: The musician is constantly in motion, always moving away from or in opposition of something, whether it’s home, the law, a spouse or the politics of the time.
“Merle tells us over and over,” Cantwell writes, “that running is in his DNA the way train and prison songs are in country music’s.” Later, Cantwell remarks, “Who he is, is the running kind, as free and unfree as a bird.”
This notion of running colors Haggard’s work, which Cantwell discovered when he first heard “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” as a child, but didn’t fully appreciate until college. “I grew up spending a lot of time...with my 45s on my record player, and just listening to those things over and over again,” Cantwell says of his own musical roots. Born in 1961 and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, his house was “divided,” he notes, with his mother fond of Tony Bennett and Bing Crosby and his father immersed in country music. In an effort to distinguish himself from his parents, Cantwell listened to local radio station WHB, which at the time played Top 40 hits and included everyone from Neil Young to Black Sabbath to Aretha Franklin. His sensibilities were shaped by the idea that pop music could encompass a wide variety of genres, and musicians shouldn’t necessarily be pigeonholed.
Cantwell returned to his love of country music a few years later. “You sort of use music to save your identity,” he says. “Often times your identity is in contrast to your parents’, and then you get a little older and you go back and begin to reexamine those things that once were yours, and you say, ‘I don’t want to give this up. I want to figure out a way where I can still have it.’ So that’s what I did with country in college.”
After graduating from the University of Missouri in Columbia, Cantwell moved back to Kansas City, where he began freelancing and eventually wrote for national publications like the Journal of Country Music and Country Music Magazine. For a few years, Cantwell served as president of the Greater Kansas City Coalition Against Censorship, an organization devoted to promoting free speech among creative communities, and eventually became a senior editor at No Depression, a celebrated, now-defunct magazine covering the alternative country scene. It was there, over the course of 15 years, that he met fellow critic Bill Friskics-Warren, with whom he co-authored Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, and also editor Peter Blackstock, who eventually approached him about writing a book for his American Music Series at the University of Texas Press. Cantwell pitched the idea of writing about Haggard, without hesitation.
“Part of the appeal is, well, I love it,” he says, describing his own draw to Haggard’s work, which has spanned from the mid-1960s onward. “The songs are great, I can’t help but feel, they make me want to move around the room and they’re dealing with things that I recognize in the world and in my own family’s life. And then an additional fascination with that: disagreeing with him.” Haggard’s history with identity politics and jingoism is one of the more controversial aspects of his songwriting. “Even as I’m tapping my foot and singing along, I’m thinking, That’s not right.”
Cantwell’s continued interest in the musician thrives on another level, though. “I always suspected Haggard’s songs weren’t just autobiographical—that he wasn’t just singing about things that happened in his life,” he notes. “He was imagining, he was being an artist, and making things up for particular effect.”
This, especially, caters to Cantwell’s sensibilities as a critic. “When you take what really happened and then you mess it up, you reshape it...those are the kinds of choices that are interesting to me. I don’t really care if it matches up with real life,” Cantwell says. “I want to know, Does it sing well? Does it have an emotional response? Does it speak to my moment? Does it help me make sense of my moment? And in those ways, his songs are a success.”
Rebecca Rubenstein is the Interviews Editor at The Rumpus, and can often be found thinking aloud on Twitter.