News Column

'Merle Haggard: The Running Kind' is a portrait of a mercurial genius

November 23, 2013


Nov. 23--After listening to Merle Haggard for decades and then writing a book about his music, David Cantwell has this to say about the man who is most famous for the jingoist song, "Okee from Muskogee":

"He is probably the best songwriter America has ever produced," he told The Star recently. You can talk about him in he same breath as Cole Porter. Just a magnificent songwriter."

It's a bold statement, one that sounds like exaggeration or hyperbole to some, but Cantwell supports his conclusion in his book: "Merle Haggard: The Running Kind," published in September by the University of Texas Press.

"Running Kind" isn't a biography; rather, it's a detailed look at each facet of Haggard's music -- his songs, his recordings, his voice, his bands -- and what they say about his life and his place in songwriting history.

"I consider it a critical monograph," Cantwell said. "It's more pure music criticism than biography. Rock and pop music have a long tradition of that; country has next to none. I wanted to apply the skills others have applied to Elvis and whoever, but to apply it to someone who doesn't tend to get that kind of serious, close listening."

Cantwell, based in Kansas City, spends 30 chapters, plus a selected discography, examining Haggard's music. Cantwell strives to make the case that Haggard not only deserves such meticulous deliberation, but that his stature was as solid gold as any of his late-'60s contemporaries. Midway through the book, in a chapter titled "He's Living in the Good Old Days," Cantwell writes:

"On these 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, his attitude is as sharp and dissolute as the Stones, his soundscapes and emotional intensity as arresting as those of Jimi Hendrix or the Band, or even James Brown, Haggard's only peer at the time in terms of producing such a high quantity of quality work."

He also makes the case that, compared with other legends in country music, like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Haggard never got his mainstream due. Some of that, Cantwell said, is due to Haggard's nature, which comes out in his songs.

"The ability to cross over is what has marked Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson as artists who had a broader audience to latch onto," said Cantwell, who is also the co-author of "Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles."

"They made music that wasn't just country, but pop. They had variety shows and hits on the radio next to the rock and soul hits of the era. Haggard's music never did that.

"It comes down to class. Cash's music tended to be very larger-than-life, folkloric and hilarious at times, but on purpose. All those things make it easier to look back on old-country ways and working-class roots and hold them close but transcend them, to feel as if they are safely in the past. There's a distance in his music.

"Haggard is almost never funny, and if he is it's usually mean-spirited. He doesn't do folkloric. His music ... is very white, working class, but in the present, right now. The larger audiences, especially the pop audiences, want to see that safely in the past. But they can't do that with Haggard, 76, who reminds people that those class distinctions linger.

"In so many songs, he is his own person, like 'My Own Kind of Hat.' In all those songs, he is saying I don't fit in. From another songwriter, that point of view might be, 'I don't fit in, but I want to.' From Haggard, you usually get a wistfulness, like he wants to. But he's like the John Wayne character in 'The Searchers': Maybe he stands in the doorway for a few minutes, wishing he could enter, but he's content to turn and go off on his own way."

By way of Haggard's music, "Running Kind" examines his working-class roots and upbringing and their influence on his music and personae. It also touches upon the styles of music that influenced him growing up and Haggard's way of drawing from the styles of Bakersfield, where he grew up, and Nashville.

Some chapters are long and deliberate, others are quick and to the point, like "Mama Tried," an analysis of one of Haggard's most beloved songs and one Cantwell called "hands down his most purely autobiographical."

The song, he writes in "Running Kind," is a "shout-out to a woman who struggled to be both mom and dad to the boy, who saw to it he went to church, who tried to make him right; even the bit about the twenty-first birthday behind bars -- it's all Merle, all true, right up to his owning up to being such a headstrong fool that no one, not even his mother, could tell him a damn thing."

Other chapters address the people who influenced Haggard, personally and musically, such as Lefty Frizzell, his first music hero, and Bonnie Owens, a country singer and Haggard's second wife.

Though most of "Running Kind" focuses on the most influential part of Haggard's career, from the mid-1960s into the '80s. It also touches upon Haggard's slow fade in the 1990s in the wake of modern country, and the fixing of his stature in the new millennium, when he received a Kennedy Center Honor.

It closes with a recollection of a live show at a county fair in Cuba, Mo., in 2010, where, Cantwell allows, Haggard's voice showed signs of wear and tear.

"(He) isn't afraid to deploy the spoken phrase when he needs to catch his breath." Yet, his music continues to impress new generations. He writes: "A young women behind me, late twenties, said to no one in particular, 'It's like every song he sings is the most amazing song ever. Every song.'"

In the end, what emerges is a colorful and detailed mosaic, a thoughtful, authoritative portrait of a mercurial artist, a man who was complicated and multifaceted and not easily pigeonholed, who resisted branding and labels. And beyond that, it supports Cantwell's case: that everything about Haggard's music was eminent and supreme.

"Nobody had his vocal prowess and songwriting talent," he said. "Nobody was as a smart a phraser, a singer who could glide over a melody and dig down deep into a melody the way he did. And he wrote his own songs."

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to


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