Let me say this right off the bat: I’ve been looking forward to this book since I heard about it several months ago. I’ve been a fan of David Cantwell’s writing for years and a fan of Merle Haggard for much longer than that. Having said that, I might be a little biased, but Merle Haggard: The Running Kind turned out to be just as good as I hoped. Maybe even better. David was kind enough to talk to me about the book:
Music Tomes: Haggard has two autobiographies, and those are the only books dedicated solely to him until now. But Merle Haggard: The Running Kind isn’t a straight biography, more of an examination of him and his work. What influenced you to go that direction?
David Cantwell: That’s right. I consider The Running Kind to be a critical monograph, rather than a biography. Haggard’s life is in there, of course, but what I’ve really set my sights on here is his music, his art. My aim was to wrestle with Haggard’s catalogue, to think about how his specific performances work, how they work for me—how voicing compounds or contradicts a lyric and how both interact with an arrangement, how the best records always engage in conversations with other records, how music speaks to and for audiences and to and from its moment. There are practical reasons why I went that route, the most pressing being that to pull off a full-on biography, which Haggard certainly deserves, would’ve exceeded my word count by four or five hundred percent. But mainly I just wanted to write the sort of Haggard book I’d like to read. I guess in a way the book is placing a wager on the possibility that some readers will find value in that most basic, and fun, but increasingly overlooked of critical approaches: close listening.
MT: You talk a lot about class identity and Merle, who is to this day called the “Poet of the Working Man.” I always find the notion of a performer being so closely associated with a class that they are not in, and in some cases have never been, fascinating. How do you think he has been able to channel those thoughts and feelings of the regular working stiff into the songs that have touched so many people?
DC: Well, as someone who began his own life blue collar working class (and was among, at different times, what we lately term the working poor), but who would now be considered solidly middle class, I can bear witness that you don’t entirely exchange your class affinities and allegiances, your insecurities, your tastes and your sense of who you are or should be, just because you went and got yourself college educated. Of course, Haggard never did that—he’s classic school of hard knocks, with graduate studies in solitary confinement. He never left his working class roots behind, never even tried. Rather he consciously dug his hands, and his imagination, down among those roots all the deeper, and part of what that meant was that he never stopped understanding work as a necessity, as just one more of those limits that come with being human. Now I might say that anyone who has to sell their labor to make a living is working class by definition. Haggard’s music does say, loudly and clearly, that even as he gained in status and wealth, he still understood the music business to be a job, a grind, as something he had to get up and do every day whether he liked it or not. The guy in “Workin’ Man Blues” who wants to catch a train to another town but knows he has a family to feed and, therefore, knows he’ll be working just as long as his two hands are fit to use is no different in this sense, no different at all, than the Haggard who complains in “Footlights” that he has to haul his butt out there on the stage again every night, flash that old Inst-o-matic grin, and… work. Haggard’s whole career lends new and poignant meaning to the expression “body of work.”
MT: One of my favorite periods in Haggard’s career is the one you call his “Quiet Storm” period. Was the backlash he received from songs like “Okie” and “Fightin’ Side” a contributing factor for him to turn away a bit from the workingman songs to one based more on love and loss?
DC: Haggard’s most explicitly political work has tended to show up in cycles: “Okie” and Fightin’ Side” and the 1971 album Hag are one pass; the Big City album ten years later was part of another. He sticks his toe into the political waters, sometimes his whole foot and a good portion of a leg, then pulls it out for a while. Then again, love and loss are hardly categories separate from the class politics of “Workin’ Man Blues.” Very often they are those blues, with strong political implications of their own—especially if we listen to those numbers, as I try to do in the book, as in dialogue with his more straightforwardly political numbers.
But, yes, Quiet Storm was the early 1980s R&B radio format, named after a Smokey Robinson hit, which favored lush-and-tinkling, baby-making slow jams, and many Haggard hits from the same general period were like country versions of the same idea. Romantic and romancing, full of electric pianos, jazzy guitars and swoony melodies: “Natural High” from 1985 is the exemplar, but there were many others. In these songs, love is both respite from work—and a motivation to keep on keeping on.
MT: Why do you think, other than a brief spike in the 2000, he hasn’t had the pop culture revival artists like Cash or Willie Nelson have had?
DC: I spend a chapter of the book on exactly this question, at least as it pertains to the Hag and the Man in Black, and it brings us back I think to issues of class identity, of class identification, that you were asking about before. Cash was able to skew middle class thanks to his rock ‘n’ roll and, later, rock connections, because of his TV show, because of his comparatively progressive politics, his whole persona as a larger-than-life icon and purveyor of rural and even white trash folklore and Americana that was always fun to sing along with (and often funny) but that was in the past. Cash let people imagine the possibility of remaining connected to the best of their country roots while also safely transcending them. Haggard’s music, by contrast, has never favored the folkloric, and has rarely if ever been broadly comic. Merle’s music has always been grounded in the material difficulties and spiritual anxieties of the here and now. Indeed, his whole career is a kind of refutation of the idea that one’s history, however shameful or proud of it we may be, is ever really in the past. And that’s an approach that’s always going to be a tough sell, particularly to the wider pop audience.
MT: What are you currently working on?
DC: Another book in the University of Texas’ American Music Series, this one on Ray Charles. Like the Hag, Brother Ray seems a good fit for what I do. There are already two biographies out there on him: an autobiography Charles did with David Ritz; and a really swell traditional bio by Michael Lydon. Neither of those does very much close listening to specific performances, however, nor do they look into how fans used the music, or how that music echoed and, to some degree, shaped its times. So my plan is to try and do some of that.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
DC: I could do that all day long, but for the purposes of keeping it brief, I’ll just list the titles that are on the shelf right here behind me in my office, the “music tomes” I like to keep closest because I turn to them the most. In alphabetical order… Bill C. Malone’s Don’t Get above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class; Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music; Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made; Christopher Small’s Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African American Music; Craig Werner’s A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America; and Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.
Read an excerpt from the book at Slate.com
Keep up with David Cantwell at his excellent blog Living In Stereo.