The Running Kind: Listening to Merle Haggard

Image of The Running Kind: Listening to Merle Haggard (American Music Series)
Release Date: 
May 10, 2022
University of Texas Press
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Often it’s the lyrics that Cantwell judiciously quotes and expertly contextualizes; at other times it's the imaginative, unerringly precise, and never-repeated way he describes a guitar sound that impels you seek out and hear those sounds right after you read about them. And then Haggard sings you back into the book.

Contrary to the title of the song that defined his career for legions of fans and especially non-fans—and despite the fact that fellow Californians had long hung the label on him and others of his background and class—Merle Haggard wasn’t “Okie from Muskogee.”

Before “Okie from Muskogee” placed Haggard smack-dab in the center of what today we call the culture wars—which in 1969 pitted Richard Nixon’s hawkish and fed-up “Silent Majority” against antiwar protesters and hippies—Haggard had established himself as an iconic, chart-topping, and decidedly un-crossed-over country music star. Even with a string of brilliant hit records, a resonant and expressive voice, a tight and versatile band, and James Garner-like good looks, before “Okie from Muskogee,” Haggard’s success remained entirely confined to one segment of Billboard’s mostly segregated sales charts.

In The Running Kind: Listening to Merle Haggard, a newly expanded and revised edition of his brilliant Haggard monograph, first published in 2013, David Cantwell identifies this inflection point in Haggard’s life and career as “The Muskogee Moment.” In that roughly two-year “moment,” Cantwell explains with the sort of sharp-eyed and sharp-eared insight that abounds in his book, the song “freed Haggard forever from mere country stardom, while also chaining him tightly to an image he had to fight to live down. Except, that is, whenever he made a point of living up to it, in the process foiling yet again the expectations of anyone who’d have preferred he live it down.”

Cantwell, co-author of the indispensable Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles (2003), cautions readers early on that The Running Kind is no biography. Relevant biographical details of Haggard’s remarkable life inevitably emerge, providing essential context for the music—especially now as the new edition’s scope includes, among other things, reflections on Haggard’s final years and death. But Cantwell’s book focuses emphatically on the songs and the records Haggard made.

If the book’s subtitle, Listening to Merle Haggard, accurately characterizes the wellspring of nearly every word Cantwell has to say about the man, it’s also an apt description of the only way to read this book. Though Cantwell’s consistently lively prose is certainly strong enough to stand on its own, it never fails to drive the reader to the song(s) he’s discussing. Without a running soundtrack, The Running Kind is only half the book it’s built to be.

Often it’s the lyrics that Cantwell judiciously quotes and expertly contextualizes; at other times it's the imaginative, unerringly precise, and never-repeated way he describes a guitar sound that impels you seek out and hear those sounds right after you read about them. And then Haggard sings you back into the book.

Try not cueing up Haggard’s 1962 debut single “Skid Row” (not to mention “Tall, Tall Trees”) after reading Cantwell’s take: “It’s kicked off by electric guitar that’s thick and twisty like taffy, like the lick from George Jones’s ‘Tall, Tall Trees’ played in quicksand.” Or 1964’s “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers”: “[The lyrics’] rough beauty is shared by the music. Roy Nichols’s fancy-free acoustic guitar lines keep snagging on his barbed-wire chords, and his fellow West Coast Playboys play gritty and pretty by turns.”

What emerges from Cantwell’s deep dive into Haggard’s music is a man who (along with Buck Owens) largely invented and defined country’s immensely popular and influential California-based “Bakersfield Sound,” but who was also deeply influenced by his forebears, and sometimes given to outright mimicry of earlier country and western stars like Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell, and Bob Wills.

We also see and hear an artist who often seemed to pour out his life (particularly as a haunted San Quentin ex-con) in his songs. The most famous example of this may be 1968’s “Mama Tried,” although the song’s best-known line—“I turned twenty-one in prison doin’ life without parole”—was literally only half true.

Along the way, we also learn that many of Haggard’s most form-fittingly autobiographical-sounding songs were in fact written by others. And we discover the earned class resentment behind his “Okie” persona: Though not born in Oklahoma like his parents, Haggard did grow up as part of California’s despised white underclass of overland immigrants and their immediate descendants, forever tagged with the “Okie” slur.

But Haggard’s songs, Cantwell explains, were not only as real as the man but also as complex, and as full of fascinating contradictions: “He was born to the working class and nearly always wrote and sang about grown-up joys and troubles from that perspective,” Cantwell writes. “His songs were about working hard at jobs you hated but still coming up short on the rent. He wrote about being transformed by love and about being crushed by it, about feeling trapped by circumstances and looking to make a break. He sang, imperfectly, about American racism when his country contemporaries didn’t dare. He regularly sang one version or another of ‘ain’t no woman gonna change the way I think,’ but notably that stance almost always left his characters depressed and alone. His patriotism was passionate and, at times, devolved to a nationalism that conflated mere symbols of freedom for the thing itself, but his attitudes both softened and strengthened in his final years. He was deemed a ‘conservative,’ of course, repeatedly, and that was not wrong. But his body of work should also be heard as a type of what critic Ellen Willis terms cultural radicalism, a ‘celebration of freedom and pleasure and its resistance to compulsive, alienated work.’” 

In the full sweep of Cantwell’s monograph, the notion of Haggard as a type of cultural radical never seems like a stretch. One might not expect to find an epigraph from James Baldwin kicking off a book about Nixon’s unofficial one-time “poet laureate,” who once recorded a song called “I’m a White Boy” that Cantwell describes as “an aggrieved white reply to James Brown’s ‘Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.’”

But that’s just one dimension of the multi-faceted character Cantwell captures. The Running Kind paints Merle Haggard in a broad and nuanced American cultural landscape, rather than the tight corners that Nixon, the counterculture, country fans, and Haggard himself frequently painted him into. 

In one of The Running Kind’s most memorable chapters, “He’d Rather Be Gone,” Cantwell compares Haggard’s 1971 album Hag with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, two records released only 30 days—but created half a country and seemingly half a culture—apart. Cantwell suggests that the two albums might be heard as in “deliberate conversation.” Hag “begins with a mother weeping for a dead son in Vietnam;” What’s Going On with “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying.”

Both portray a world “teetering on the brink,” Cantwell writes. Gaye asks, “Who is willing to save a world that’s destined to die?” while Hag echoes, “Like the Roman Empire, this world is doomed to fail.” The juxtaposition is fascinating, and of course demands immediate and deep listening to both records.

Alongside this comparison, Cantwell does note that the following spring found Haggard doing something Gaye would never have been invited to do, let alone done: performing at the White House for the entire Nixon family at the First Lady’s birthday party. There Haggard and the never-more-aptly-named Strangers played to a room full of uncomfortable and largely uninterested suits, non-fans (including the president himself) who perked up only when the band struck up “Okie from Muskogee.”

Cantwell mentions the event as informative context—particularly as codification of Haggard’s status as voice of the Silent Majority, and a coda to the waning Muskogee Moment. But the details are spare, and the focus swiftly shifts back to the music.

The shift reminds us that The Running Kind is no biography, nor is it intended as such. As Cantwell writes early on, “Haggard deserves a doorstop[-sized biography] along the lines of what RJ Smith has written for James Brown or what Gary Giddins is doing for Bing Crosby (to choose artists of comparable significance to Haggard), but that’s not the intent here.”

Fortunately, Haggard’s “doorstop” arrived in January 2022 with the publication of The Hag: The Life, Times, and Music of Merle Haggard by Marc Eliot, who has written acclaimed biographies of iconic popular figures such as James Stewart and Walt Disney, as well as co-authoring the controversial (but uniquely revealing) Bruce Springsteen biography Down Thunder Road with Springsteen’s long-exiled first manager/producer, Mike Appel.

Though The Hag never probes Haggard’s music as penetratingly or obsessively as The Running Kind, or makes the same sort of expansive cultural connections, it delivers a thorough and well-constructed narrative of Haggard’s life. While Cantwell presents a complex definition of “running” as the overarching theme of Haggard’s career, Eliot zeroes in on the shocking early death of Haggard’s father—and Merle’s belief, sustained from childhood, that he’d somehow caused it—as “the defining moment of his life.”

The Hag provides terrific detail on Haggard’s family background, his early life of petty crime and serial incarceration, his doomed marriages (particularly with long-suffering collaborator and peerless harmonizer Bonnie Owens), his relationships with his producers and managers and bandmates, the mounting touring and alimony expenses and ill-advised publishing deal that kept a consistent hitmaker and widely covered songwriter in tax arrears and on the brink of bankruptcy for decades, his disastrous relationships with unsympathetic record companies in the 1990s, his battle with drug addiction, and his artistic resurgence, commercial rebirth, and long, strange tour with Bob Dylan in the 2000s.

Cantwell touches on most of these topics, and discusses some of them in depth, but it’s never his aim to tell Haggard’s story in such a linear way.

That said, later chapters of The Running Kind track Haggard’s career in the ’80s as Reaganomics further eroded opportunities for the working poor for whom Haggard’s songs spoke, and Haggard ceded much of his platform to Heartland rockers like John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen, whose “Born in the U.S.A.” Cantwell likens to Haggard’s “Working Man’s Blues” and “Fightin’ Side of Me.” (Springsteen would pay tribute to Haggard twice in this era, quoting “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” in his lonesome album-closer “Valentine’s Day"—“He travels fastest who travels alone”—and when introducing the “mother-loving” “The Wish” at a 1990 solo show.)

Cantwell goes on to explore why Haggard descended into obscurity in the ’90s while Johnny Cash acquired indie-rock cachet, the Man in Black’s career reborn with his ’90s series of “American Recordings.” And Cantwell ponders Haggard's relationship to the ascendant Hot New Country and movements, which arose at class and cultural antipodes in the same era.

Haggard's own shot at creative, critical, and commercial comeback began just as the new century dawned, on punk label ANTI with the formidable If I Could Fly. Of a resurgent Haggard’s celebration of Barack Obama’s 2008 election as the first time in history America had lived up to its Constitution, Cantwell writes, “These statements surprised a lot of people and pissed off some of his fans. But after several years of hearing Merle running down George W. Bush, the war in Iraq, and the Patriot Act, they shouldn’t have.”

Eliot thoroughly chronicles these developments as well. Though one at times wishes Eliot would describe the music with a little more care (his repeated references to “steel pedal” guitar don’t exactly burnish his C & W cred), digging deep into the music is not as much The Hag’s mission as it is The Running Kind’s.

Eliot sets out to tell the complete story of the life behind Haggard’s music; Cantwell endeavors both to amplify and elucidate the story the music tells, and to situate it amid several broader stories in the culture and country at large in Haggard’s time. As such, the two books complement each other wonderfully.

While Cantwell tends to identify inherent contradictions in Haggard’s various characterizations of his life and beliefs in his music, or, say, his incessant running toward and away from his own Muskogee Moment, Eliot more often concerns himself with places where the facts contradict Haggard’s own version of his story, particularly as told in his two memoirs.

One particularly instructive example concerns what might be Haggard’s most magnificent song, “Sing Me Back Home,” a wrenching tale of a Death Row prisoner who pauses on his final walk to ask a guitar-playing fellow inmate to sing him a gospel song before he dies. In his lifetime, Haggard variously connected this song (or at least the last dead man walking’s plea at the heart of it) with two condemned San Quentin contemporaries, rapist Caryl Chessman and bank robber James “Rabbit” Kendrick.

As a good biographer should, Eliot reports that an accurate chronology precludes the possibility that Haggard ever encountered either man as he walked his last mile. Insightfully, Eliot notes, “Merle’s account demonstrates his flair for the fanciful and dramatic, and his ability to tell a story—qualities that he would develop to the fullest in his music.”

Cantwell takes the “Sing Me Back Home” story and its deconstruction in an entirely different direction that places Haggard in exactly the sort of broader cultural context that The Running Kind fashions so effectively. He acknowledges the power of “Sing Me Back Home” as a eulogy for Kendrick, Chessman, and “all of the condemned men up on the Shelf”–regardless of where Haggard might have been on the days they were executed—and finds “something within Merle’s song . . . that can’t be caged.”

But Cantwell also describes how the story the song nearly replicates a poignant scene from the 1936 Bing Crosby film Pennies from Heaven, in which a man being led down the hallway to his doom stops and asks the warden, “Where does that fellow with the guitar hang out?”

Given the presumed cultural and temporal distance between a hard-edged, real-life ex-con, Okie-by-association country icon like Merle Haggard and a refined crooner of a different era like Bing Crosby, one might imagine Pennies from Heaven as too far removed from Haggard’s milieu to assert such an influence. Not so, argues Cantwell. 

“Crosby’s impact is unavoidable across American popular music, of course, but his croon, comfortable and approachable and middle-class-defining, found an early home in country, and in the homes of many middle-class-aspiring country fans, the Haggards included.”

In The Running Kind, such connections run deep, hit home, and throw enough light to illuminate even the darkest halls of San Quentin.