The Fightin’ Side of Merle: At Last, a Critical Study of Country’s Prickly Great


Reviewed herein:

Merle Haggard:The Running Kind by David Cantwell

Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville by Michael Streissguth

Surprisingly, since it stands as the finest and most thorough work of Hag-gazing any critic has yet mustered, David Cantwell’s Merle Haggard:The Running Kind (University of Texas Press, $19.95) never really gets around to making the quick case for its impossible, irascible subject, that itchin’-to-fight and itchin’-to-croon Bakersfield Okie who released Merle Haggard Presents His Thirtieth Album just nine years after releasing his first in 1965.

Cantwell takes it on faith that readers are already admirers, a safe tack in a book-length study, of course–who else would pick it up?

See also: Merle Haggard Is Searching for His “Hurt” and Considering Doing Stand-Up Comedy

Still, that strikes me as a rare missed opportunity in a work that thrums with love and insight. Before the deep dive, how about a short dip, just to let the new folks know the water’s fine? The opening chapters delve straight-away into the thorniest tangles of Hag-dom: How autobiographical are songs like “Hungry Eyes,” “Tulare Dust,” and that prideful stinkbomb “Okie From Muskogee,” the song that drew a still-extant line of grievance between the country audience and the rest of America? How much of “Muskogee” was a joke, how much was a provocative stunt, and how much was the earnest celebration of squareness in the Age of Aquarius?

These are fascinating questions, and Cantwell is great on all of this. No matter how much you may hate or love that song (and its bellicose, irresistible cousin “The Fightin’ Side of Me”) you’ll hear it anew after reading–and you’ll likely be better equipped to understand the still-widening fissures of class, region, and race. But all that’s quite a lot for the Hag-curious to get through straight-off, and Cantwell himself apologizes early on for belaboring a point regarding the gulf between songs like “The Roots of My Raising” and Haggard’s actual raising.

No reasonable person would argue that Haggard’s life and music aren’t worth such attention, but I know far too many smart music fans who don’t quite buy that the music Haggard made with his band, the Strangers, over the last half century is worth their ear-time in 2013. Finally, on page 126, the pitch comes, in a discussion of records from the late 1960s:

“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.”

That, right there, should be on the back cover, on the front page, and maybe skywritten each morning above whatever bookstores are left. It’s all true: Haggard stands in the first rank of America’s popular musicians, although some of Cantwell’s comparisons must be considered in terms of achievement rather than sympathy of approach. As a singer, Hag’s “sunburnt baritone” (Cantwell’s words) is more Sinatra cool than Aretha hot. Still, he’s every bit the equal of those artists, a fact worth evangelizing with greater fervor, especially since, as Cantwell demonstrates, hippie-baiting anthems like “Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side” (“If you don’t love it/ leave it!”) went a long way toward widening the pop/country divide–for many, in the Nixon years, a full DMZ spread between the two, and the fate of civilization seemed to depend on being on the right side.

Perhaps that’s why outside of some admiring notices, chiefly from wide-listening types like Robert Christgau, the Hag has never gotten his critical due–or won one of those crossover audiences that hold Waylon, Willie and the boys as the exemplars of a tradition too rarefied to be trusted to mere country-music fans. (Never trust rock-first folks who tell you that country should sound like ’73 or that hip-hop should go back to ’89.)

“Mama Tried” not withstanding, he never made much of a play for the rock crowd, especially after “Muskogee.” (Although, with him, there are always exceptions: 1971’s snaking “Huntsville” anticipates and bests most of the country-rock to come.) Increasingly, Haggard’s music was steeped in the pre-Beatles era, sometimes even pre-Elvis, touched by Western swing and Tin-Pan Alley, with many stately ballads, gentle rhythms, and flurries of dobro as ornamental as doilies. For all his hell raising and crabbing about welfare, Haggard was also the workingman’s aesthete.

Cantwell’s approach is loosely biographical, although the life of the artist is always subordinate here to the art. There’s many sharp, short chapters considering a song or a moment of Haggard’s career, including several accounts of Cantwell’s own adventures at Haggard concerts. (Treasure the one where he almost gets beat up for not cheering the risible anti-flag-burning jeremiad “Me and Crippled Soldiers.”)

This structure rewards discovery, encouraging readers to sample Hag eras to make playlists, and Cantwell has long been adept at capturing a song’s rich essence in just a couple hundred words, as he did throughout Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, co-written with Bill Friskics-Warren.

The longer chapters are often more rewarding, because Haggard is such an elusive, mercurial character that it’s thrilling to see him pinned down, to see his selves set against each other. Cantwell is especially good at cultural context, explaining why Haggard, the son of California-bound Okies, detests The Grapes of Wrath or making sense of the mopey/hopeful Reagan-era waltz “Are the Good Times Really Over for Good?” Things on Hag’s fightin’ side in that one: microwaves, Nixon, marijuana (again!), crappy American cars, and women who don’t bother to cook — a complaint he has since tempered in concert appearances.

Here’s Cantwell contrasting The Rolling Stones’ country-aping Beggars Banquet with Same Train, Different Time, the great tribute to yodelin’ Jimmie Rodgers that Haggard released the same year:

“The biggest sonic differences …. come down to the Stones’ simpler lines and louder drums, and their self-consciously rougher and rowdier textures– a British art student’s notion of what a poor boy could do– and Merle and the Strangers’ just-as-fussed-over but more-clean-and-polished tones and fancier picking. Haggard’s ideal of what a poor boy could do, once he’d made it, was to have some nice things and show them off.”

That echoes what a former Nashville session guitar player told me when I once asked him to share the highlights of his career: “Anytime I played it right,” he said– a far cry from the answer a rock player might offer.

See also: Merle Haggard Is Still A Terrific Bad Actor

Playing it right. Wanting to have nice things. If you don’t love it, leave it. Today you might have a hard time hearing the differences between country and rock music, but Haggard is evidence that the worldviews have long been divergent– and Cantwell illuminates just how that came to happen. The Running Kind is an invaluable contribution to the greater understanding of American culture, a vital examination of rifts that still gape between the squares and cool folks, between the Tea Party and Obama Nation, and one divide greater and stranger still: between the angry Hag who still sings “Okie From Muskogee” in concert and the libertarian pothead Hag who a couple of years back wrote a song beseeching Hillary Clinton to run for president.

I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that Cantwell edited record reviews I wrote for a paper in Kansas City almost twenty years ago, and that — although we haven’t seen each other in years– I somehow made the acknowledgements page of The Running Kind. That’s touching, but, seriously, I have had as much to do with the writing and thinking behind this book as I did with Merle Haggard’s song of the same name. I wish I did, though, because it’s mean piece of work.

Haggard, of course, is known for his prison songs, and he actually served a stint in San Quentin. But he was no outlaw, at least not in the capital-O Nashville-marketing sense. Still, as the 60s bled into the 70s, he enjoyed the freedom that the Outlaw country movement was just gearing up to fight for.

Haggard picked much of his own material, recorded with his own band, and talked Capitol Records into letting him release concept albums about trains, churches, and long-gone country greats like Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Meanwhile, in Nashville, not-yet greats Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were chafing– their labels afforded them no such trust.

Then Waylon insisted on doing things his way.

That’s the story Michael Streissguth tells in the breezy Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville ($26.99, HarperCollins), a brisk, easy-to-gush-through account of all things Outlaw, especially how Jennings browbeat the suits until they let his Waylors chuck polite recordmaking and instead crank up the dusty one-two bass thump that made him a star– and, ironically, in his late career and afterlife, a paragon of country-music purity. Albums like Honky Tonk Heroes and Are You Ready for the Country? sound more indebted to Beggars Banquet than Merle Haggard, and I’ll be damned if key track “The Memories of You and I” isn’t the blueprint for swirling alt-rock dream-pop.

Outlaw offers no insight into how a recording like that came to be. Instead, Streissguth devotes his energy to chart positions and anecdotes. Tales of Kris Kristofferson bottoming out in Hollywood, or of Waylon’s addiction to pinball (and pretty much everything else), are all diverting, but I wish the book was more invested in the Outlaws’ lasting achievements. The six-album tear Jennings managed between ’73 and ’76 is one of the tops in all pop– and one of the most neglected by critics. It’s also the beginning of the rock-oriented shift in the sound of country music that would, by the mid 80s, leave the comparatively genteel Haggard struggling to find a hit.

Another demerit: “Outlaw” was a vague ethos shared by West End musicians too often shut out by the labels. Once the hits started coming, the term became a marketing gimmick, and then (as Waylon’s son Shooter argues on his biting recent cut “Outlaw You”) just one of the company-approved flavors of country singer.

Streissguth touches on all this, but he never makes much of it, leaving the ironies and complexities lying there for others to deal with – kind of like what Waylon did with cars during the peak of his cocaine use: “I had dizzy spells where I couldn’t hardly drive,” the star says in one of Outlaw’s many dishy tall-tales. “I had cars strewed all over this town because I’d get somewhere, and I’d have to leave ’em and have somebody else take me home.”

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