Merle Haggard: The Running Kind (American Music (University of Texas))
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Merle Haggard has enjoyed artistic and professional triumphs few can match. He’s charted more than a hundred country hits, including thirty-eight number ones. He’s released dozens of studio albums and another half dozen or more live ones, performed upwards of ten thousand concerts, been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and seen his songs performed by artists as diverse as Lynryd Skynyrd, Elvis Costello, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, the Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan. In 2011 he was feted as a Kennedy Center Honoree. But until now, no one has taken an in-depth look at his career and body of work.
In Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, David Cantwell takes us on a revelatory journey through Haggard’s music and the life and times out of which it came. Covering the entire breadth of his career, Cantwell focuses especially on the 1960s and 1970s, when Haggard created some of his best-known and most influential music, which helped invent the America we live in today. Listening closely to a masterpiece-crowded catalogue (including songs such as “Okie from Muskogee,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried,” “Working Man Blues,” “Kern River,” “White Line Fever,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and “If We Make It through December,” among many more), Cantwell explores the fascinating contradictions—most of all, the desire for freedom in the face of limits set by the world or self-imposed—that define not only Haggard’s music and public persona but the very heart of American culture.
children. But he grew up in a repurposed train car, which is disgrace and honor enough. And his aunt and uncle did indeed live in a labor camp tent home where Merle stayed often following his father’s death. It was there that Merle learned that “Mama never had the luxuries she wanted,” even in the Promised Land, even though all she wanted was what she really needed. What could be more shameful? And I don’t mean for the Haggards. They came out here with pride in their eyes, but those eyes, like
when he was still a teen. Cantwell_4809_BK.indd 73 7/8/13 11:50 AM 74 merle haggard The Maddoxes made a lasting impression on Merle. Nineteen seventy-one’s chart-topping “Daddy Frank” was inspired, in part, by stories he had heard of the family’s journeys, and his 1974 “Old Man from the Mountain,” also a #1, with its hot rhythm and “Don’t want no Friendly Henrys warmin’ up my bed,” paid tribute to their sound and randy attitude. But what really impressed Merle when he saw the band was Roy
with Buck Owens, and recommended him as someone with a knack for coming up with memorable, radio-ruling guitar licks. Merle didn’t need persuading. Deke Dickerson notes that Merle was already nuts about Burton’s playing, especially his work on one of Rick Nelson’s first stabs at country, 1966’s “You Just Can’t Quit.” And no wonder, as Burton’s searing sound on that record predicts dozens of Haggard sides to come. As Merle explained to Downbeat in 1980, James “was doing a thing called
left northeast Oklahoma and lit out for California on July 15, 1935, at “about eleven o’clock in the morning.” We know the date and hour of their departure thanks to an interview Merle’s mother did with American Heritage in 1977 (she was about to turn seventy-five), part of a feature on Dust Bowl refugees and their escape hatch of choice, “Route 66: Ghost Road of the Okies.” Flossie Haggard’s account is iconic, as if it had been ripped straight from John Steinbeck’s typewriter. Flossie remembered
these previously warring camps all get along just swell—and without anyone having to change their minds or ways of living right to do it. Well, that’s not quite true. Because if an “old Checotah boy” can imagine himself singing different strokes for different folks, and can even imagine himself enjoying it, then Merle Haggard had changed, just a little, and so had America. Cantwell_4809_BK.indd 185 7/8/13 11:50 AM 17 “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad),” 1972 The least romantic, most cynical