Merle Haggard: The Running Kind

December 2nd, 2013

Order from Amazon

Excerpts and Interviews:

You can read the introduction to my book at Popmatters, and you can read a partial chapter at Slate.

I also spoke about the project with Eric Bannister at Music Tomes.


Beaudoin, Jedd at “A Yarn-Spinning Tale about Country Music Legend Merle Haggard.” 5/12/2014

Heaton, Dave at “Getting Gone: David Cantwell’s Take on the Iconic Merle Haggard.” 10/14/2013

Himes, Geoffrey at Paste. “The Curmudgeon: A Column Questioning the Assumptions of Popular Music.” 2/25/2014

Kirkus Reviews. Merle Haggard: The Running Kind. 6/23/2013

Mazor, Barry at “Cantwell’s Merle, and Everybody’s.” 9/12/2013

Rohlwing, Brett for Library Journal. Merle Haggard: The Running Kind.

Ross, John Walker at Broadway Book World. Merle Haggard: The Running Kind Does the Legend Justice.” 11/21/2014

Scherstuhl, Alan at The Village Voice. “The Fightin’ Side of Merle: At Last, a Critical Study of Country’s Prickly Great.” 10/2/2013

Trachtenberg, Jay at The Austin Chronicle. “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind” 5/30/2014

The book was chosen as one of the “Best Music Books of 2013″ at Engine145, and as one of the year’s “10 Notable Books for Music Lovers” at CMT/CMT Edge. Also, friend and Living In Stereo contributor Danny Alexander wrote a piece about the book, “Someone Told My Story,” for Rock & Rap Confidential.

The Running Kind on the Air

November 20th, 2013

Check it out. The Billington Library, at Johnson County Community College where I teach, now has a copy of my book (Hint: Mine’s the one on Merle Haggard, not the one on Henry Ford or Jesus.)

Just back from NYC, where I headed up midtown way to do some interviews for Merle Haggard: The Running Kind at Sirius radio. First of all, I guested on Kick out the Jams (SiriusXM Spectrum ch. 28), talking about Haggard and related issues of class and race with old friends Alexander Shashko and host Dave Marsh. I wish there was a link to share because I thought we all had a fun and helpful conversation. The same goes for an appearance I did on “Freewheelin” (SiriusXM Road Dog, ch. 128), hosted by Michelle Ochs and Chris T, and later with Mojo Nixon (He “loves cooou-unnnntry music!”) over on Outlaw Country (Sirius XM, ch. 60).

I can link to some other radio work I’ve done.  I had a long and enjoyable conversation about all things Merle with Dave Woods on his program In the Country with Dave Woods a couple of weeks ago, and just last week I spoke with Louie Saenz on “Perspectives,” at El Paso’s NPR affiliate, KPET, about not only The Running Kind but also another of my book’s Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles.

Finally, for now, The Running Kind and I took The Page 99 Test…and took it meta!

Vulnerable Boy

October 29th, 2013

Danny Alexander writes:

At fifteen, I was hooked by 1978’s Street Hassle, and got to know Lou Reed’s solo work first, virtually all of the Velvet Underground records out of print until several crucial years later. Hassle drew this teenager in, at first, because it sounded so cool, and it went to such dark places—from the unconscionable cover up of a drug overdose to the kind of racialized fantasies that later got those kids shot at the beginning of Pulp Fiction. But what held me was that album’s droning palisade of sound—and that chin-out tough-talking voice, at once close to violence and close to tears.

Trying to describe that voice, I jump forward two years to one of Reed’s most emotionally naked songs, “My Old Man.” He has a quaver from the start as he recalls being lined up on the public school playground—“Regan, Reed and Russo, I still remember the names.” It’s a song about a boy who grows to hate his abusive father, and throughout the song, the singer sounds like the boy he once was, wiping tears from his eyes and bracing for a fight. “My Old Man” is later followed by “Growing Up in Public,” a meditation on manhood over a near-comic bass line. He calls himself “a Prince Hamlet caught in the middle between reason and instinct…with [his] pants down again.”  Throughout his career, that tortured boy from the schoolyard is never far from view.

Reed liked to lace his vulnerability through walls of fuzz guitar. The only fitting corollary that comes to mind is John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. You couldn’t be fooled by the distanced cool of “Walk on the Wild Side”—you sensed a primal scream was coiled just out of sight. A hostile offense was his best defense, and Reed’s greatest gift was that he offered fans both as a refuge.

Reed didn’t build strongholds so much as vantage points, like that guy standing on the corner thinking about Jack and Jane, he most often contemplated what went overlooked—a wounded little girl dancing to the A.M. radio in her room, a father wondering over the bed where his wife cut her wrists, and that junkie answering “the dead bodies piled up in mounds” with the only thing that makes him feel like a man. Along with the other Velvets, later guitarists Robert Hunter, Dick Wagner, Robert Quine and Mike Rathke, and longtime bassist Fernando Saunders, Reed found musical hooks that pulled us in close to everyday hopes and everyday tragedy. And, sometimes, he took us to moments of peace, on the set of a night shoot for a cola commercial in “Tell It to Your Heart,” in a genial country restaurant on “New Sensations” or in his late-night conversation with a beloved ghost on “My House.”

But I have to go back to the album Growing Up in Public for the moment that, for me, best illustrates how vulnerable boy Lou Reed fights his way forward. It’s the album opener, “How Do You Speak to an Angel,” in its own way as weird (and somehow also plainspoken) a record as he ever made. Over Ellard “Moose” Boles’ bass glissandos and Michael Fonfara’s faux harpsichord keys, the singer describes a boy who has no clue how to talk to a girl he likes—a childhood commonplace delivered as a matter for serious consideration. By the second verse, he’s talking about an adult with the same concerns, and when he sings “how do ya/speak to a,” the bass doubles down, Michael Suchorsky’s drums rage at the problem, the keys escalate, Stuart Heinrich kicks in with metal guitar and everything builds to a break—“How do ya/Speak to a,” voice and handclaps, part opera, part gospel. The boy’s confusion is no longer simply a serious matter; it’s the serious matter.

The band roars forward with some punk metal version of a full tilt boogie, Reed continuing to ask the same question. Over the course of the song, his voice has moved from a kind of gentle lilt to, now, a bellowing, grunting, growling call to charge. He finally shouts, his voice a roar—“You say ‘hello, Baby!” It’s a fighter’s cry.

“Baby! Angel” he shouts as the band plays on, and as the backing vocals swell and the band storms forward he says, “Aaaanggell, Aaaaanngggelll,” and the roar is primal. When I played this record on Sunday, that cry brought tears to my eyes. It’s bringing them now. I’m already missing this man and the boy’s voice he found. They both helped me find mine.

The Running Kind #5, Still Running

October 18th, 2013

I really like this painting of Merle Haggard. It’s by the artist Buddy Owens, who apparently specializes in these sort of moody, ashen, overcast renderings of famous country star photos. besides Merle he’s done George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings and more, plus a few non-country (but roots-relevant) artists like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. You can read more about Owens here (he’s also a singer, it turns out) and see more of his work here.

I’m overdue in pulling together the latest links for my own attempt at artistic portraiture, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, so away we go….The book was reviewed in the Village Voice by film critic Alan Scherstuhl, a smart country music writer who also happens to be based in New York City. He said some nice things about the book but also chastised me a bit for burying what the he thought should’ve been the back cover blurb, as well as “maybe skywritten each morning above whatever bookstores are left.”  The buried lead in question:

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 Arteha 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.

I thought it was kind of funny that the very sentence Scherstuhl thought got to the point of the thing was also the sentence that Kirkus Reviews thought maybe shouldn’t have been included at all.

In other MH: TRK news…The book was reviewed by Scott Cox, who, it turns out, writes for the Bakersfield Californian, the hometown paper of Merle’s misspent youth….You can listen here for a podcast interview I did for the web site of my publisher, the University of Texas Press….And, finally, I appreciated this review of the book from Dave Heaton in his column over at Popmatters. He’s a savvy country music critic, too, though not from New York. In fact, his bio says he’s from here in the heart of America, from right here in Kansas City where I live, to be exact, though somehow we’ve never met.  Small world…

Back to running…

Joe Nichols’ Crickets

October 6th, 2013

I always look forward to a new Joe Nichols album. I’ve had a soft spot for this son of the Arkansas Ozarks since I did a short profile on him for the dear, departed Country Music magazine back around ‘02 or thereabouts. His albums are all frustratingly inconsistent, and I only really appreciate his every third or fourth single (which, come to think of it, is about the same rate the country audience has decided to champion them). He’s a George Strait acolyte–as can be heard pretty clearly on three of his early hits, “Brokenheartsville,” “She Only Smokes When She Drinks” and “Cool to Be a Fool”–a country pop balladeer of neo New Traditionalist persuasion who’s still capable of cutting contemporary-sounding country (nee classic) rock like “It Ain’t No Crime,” a pretty swell anthem of indolence and just-glad-to-be-alive lack of ambition.

Strait aside, Nichols’ real hero, and this is part of why I’m taking him up here now, is my man Merle Haggard. Nichols has always hinted at tastes broader than modern country radio–he’s ably covered over the years both that old Gene Watson hit “Farewell Party” and Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues”–but even with newer songs he can seem to channel Hag the way Merle did his own main man, Lefty. The title track to Nichols’ 2009 album Old Things New is my pick for the best Merle Haggard ballad-style recording of this century: It’s got the fatalism, the nostalgia, just that whole Haggardy/human sense of the sadness of time passing–and that’s just the melody.  That is, the best in that vein not actually written or recorded by Merle Haggard (It’s a Bill Anderson/Buddy Cannon/Paul Overstreet co-write). And I’m betting Nichols’ covers of “No Time to Cry” and “If I Could Only Fly” are covers of Merle’s covers of those songs, not of versions by songwriters Iris Dement and Blaze Foley, respectively.

But while Nichols’ Haggard jones has been apparent all along, I don’t believe he’s ever recorded a Merle song until now. His new album Crickets is a typically mixed affair–and pretty representative of where we’re at now in mainstream country music. Its first single is the unmemorable “Sunny and 75,” a weather song in which the elements are most definitely not, as in Merle’s “Chill Factor” or George Strait’s “Chill of an Early Fall,” a metaphor for individual human misery.  (Yes, country radio has sunk to this: We’re literally singing about the weather.) Along the same contemporary lines, album opener “Just Let Me Fall in Love with You” and the closing title track are both about being out in the country, hearing crickets in the moonlight and…canoodling! You’ve heard them before. And in between there’s the obligatory number about cracking open a cold one (”Open a Can”), and a randy verging-on-creepy pick-up number called “Hee Haw”: “Show me your bush hog, I’ll show you my John Deere…Show me your yee haw, I’ll show you my hee haw.”  It does not include the line “Let me do some pickin’ and I’ll leave you grinnin’,” which seems like a missed opportunity.

Nichols does all of these as well as they can be done, I suppose. He has a great, warm buttery baritone rising up to a tender tenor, and he knows how to phrase. And hats off to ”Old School Country Song,” which updates country verities for the “cyberspace” and “iPod” age. But the actual old school country song that follows had me staring at my speakers in disbelief. Nichols sings…Merle Haggard’s “Footlights,” perhaps the bitterest, most world-weary, most anti-show business, most tired-of-going-through-the-same-old-motions song ever to be a country hit. Joe falls short of Merle’s anguish–he hasn’t been at it as long for one thing; he changes “I’m 41 years old…” to “31″–but it’s a mean performance, nonetheless. [Added on 10/8: The press packet tells me that Nichols liked to practice the song in his bedroom as a boy and that it was a special favorite of his father, who passed away in 2003.]

I hope there’s more of this to come. There are all sorts of clues of late that something may be about to give down in Nashville. Country music people–by which I mean singers, songwriters, musicians, producers, as well as a significant portion of the audience and we’ll just have to see about radio–are beginning to get tired of nothing but country-moonlight-cricket songs and cracking-open-another-cold-one songs, not to mention truck songs and all the other let-me-show-you-how-country-I-am hits. I’m taking Nichols choosing, in this moment, of “Footlights as just one more tiny sign that change is potentially afoot. It is for sure yet another piece of evidence that the Merle Haggard songbook is still alive and kicking.

The Running Kind, “Good Boy!” Edition

October 3rd, 2013

My friend Shakespeare, and his owner Melissa, sent me a photo of the Border collie Bard and the special treat that showed up in the mail at their place out west. Very smart boy!

Lots of Running Kind news to catch up on… I did an interview about the book with Eric Banister at Music Tomes…I contributed an annotated Merle Haggard playlist at Slate, a kind of adjunct to The Running Kind excerpt that ran there last week. It comes with video links and a Spotify playlist….Slate editor David Haglund, meanwhile, said a few words about the book in his latest contribution to The Book Reader at…And they are giving away a free copy of the book at The Campaign for the American Reader (more from there soon)…

Just one more thing, for now…Back on September 12th, in the book’s first post-publication review, Barry Mazor had some very nice things to say about the book over at that specialist in all-things-country, Engine 145. You can read the entire review here (it’s a long one!), but the back-jacket-blurb version goes like this:

This is a portrait of creative genius…Chapter by chapter and theme by theme, the book demonstrates how many easy assumptions about Merle and his music prove inadequate if looked at just a little closer–the supposedly “autobiographical” songs that lean heavily on imagination, or turn out to be ones written by others; the nostalgia for Okie and Depression experiences learned in large measure at second hand; the supposedly “stripped down” Bakersfield sounds that so often made use of orchestrated Nashville Sound elements; the confessional singer-songwriter’s…sometimes obscured but never broken love of pop; the consummate country singer who so often sang of big cities…And he demonstrates again and again how, as much as Bob Dylan and James Brown or Marvin Gaye, Haggard’s records, over decades, have been signs of their times that could last….[Y]ou should, I’m trying to make unequivocally clear here, read and own this book.

I appreciated all of that, of course, and more, but I was particularly pleased to see that first line quoted above. The book’s not a Haggard biography but an examination of the man’s art, “a portrait of creative genius.” Yes, that’s what I was trying to do. 

The Running Kind, #3

September 28th, 2013

Was in Nashville last week for the AMA conference and was tickled to see that my book was right there in the Country Music Hall of Fame gift shop. In other Running Kind news…

Earlier this month, Brett Rohlwing wrote a capsule review of the book for Library Journal:

While country music has experienced some devastating losses to its old guard over the last decade but it still has “the Hag,” who at 76 is out touring and performing at the same rate as singers half his age. Cantwell (coauthor, Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles) provides a fans with a serious analysis of the music from the original “Okie from Muskogee.” Cantwell looks at pivotal songs and albums from Haggard’s extensive back catalog and casts them with the context of the artist’s life and the zeitgeist of the late 20th-century United States. While not a biography, the book also contains much information on Haggard’s life and career. Particularly interesting is Cantwell’s discussion of the seeming contradictions in the artist’s work: his endorsement of both politically conservative and liberal viewpoints at different periods in his career. VERDICT: A strong familiarity with Haggard’s music is necessary to appreciate this book fully, but a casual fan might be inspired by it to look further into his works. A useful addition to any music collection, preferably one that also has several of the Hag’s albums for further listening.

That was nice to see. While I think the prose in my book stands alone even if you’ve never heard a note of Haggard’s music–I certainly tried to write it that way–I will concede that “a strong familiarity with” Haggard’s music is necessary for appreciating the book, well, fully. I would just note, however, that familiarity with the work in question is necessary to fully appreciating every music book ever written, so I’m not sure why that caveat is necessary here. Also, I’m betting that Mr. Rohlwing might be as old as I am. I mean, in the time of Youtube and Spotify, the kids (and most all of the rest of us) already have more or less instant access to very nearly everything that Haggard’s ever recorded. Album collections are so 20th century…

Also… Jewly Hight ends this piece on the Americana Music Festival with a few words on my project while over at Saving Country Music they’re running a contest where you can win yourself a free copy of my book. Good luck!

Finally, Slate has run an excerpt from The Running Kind, the opening to Chapter 13 where I tell about the time Haggard followed Sly Stone on the old ABC program Music Scene. There are even video links of those two performances…though unfortunately Youtube doesn’t appear to have a the clip of Tommy Smothers introducing Merle that I write about in the piece.

More soon…

Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, #2

September 18th, 2013

I love this old photo of Merle Haggard and the Strangers, particularly that rhythm guitar front line of (from right to left) Merle, Leona Williams, and Ronnie Reno. (I’m guessing it’s from 1976 or ‘77 but I only found it out there on the interwebs and don’t know any specifics. Does anyone know the date? The venue?)

I’m off to Nashville this weekend for the Americana Music Association Conference.  I went to the event several times in its first years–I remember being blown away one year by seeing Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives upstairs at a venue, then rushing downstairs to see Solomon Burke on his throne (I described the latter show in a No Depression cover story)–but I haven’t been to the AMAs for several years now. Besides giving me a chance to touch base with old friends and colleagues, the immediate lure for attending this year, of course, is the opportunity to talk about my new book to a group of people who won’t need it explained to them who Merle Haggard is or why anyone would want to read (or write!) a book about him. If you are going to be in Nashville, please drop by my reading and book signing and say “Hey!” It goes down Friday, Sept. 20th, from 4 to 5 pm, at the downtown Sheraton’s Legislative Terrace.

In the meantime, could there be anything more wonderfully creepy than hearing one’s own book jacket material read aloud by a hollow, soulless robot? Check it out! Line-red Skynyrd!