Talking with David Cantwell about Merle Haggard
Three weeks ago — on April 6, 2016— Merle Haggard died. His unmistakable voice wound its way into our lives in drinkin’ songs (“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” Barroom Buddies”), family songs (“Grandma Harp,” “Daddy Frank,” “Mama Tried”), prison songs (“Sing Me Back Home”), fightin’ songs (“The Fightin’ Side of Me,” and “Okie from Muskogee” — though the latter was not really a fightin’ song but one that might have started a few fights between hippies and rednecks), and lovin’ songs (“Somewhere Between,” “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room”).
When Haggard died, the writer who likely received the most phone calls was David Cantwell, whose book, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind (University of Texas Press, 2013), takes us on a revelatory journey through Haggard’s music and the life and times out of which it came. When the book was published, I wrote — in a best books roundup for the now-defunct music blog, Engine 145 — that “Cantwell’s writing floats above the page like a great musical composition; he’s pitch perfect as he explores the making of Haggard’s songs and his albums. This is music criticism at its best, for Cantwell’s un-put-downable book drives us to drop the needle again, or for the first time, on Haggard’s albums.”
So, when Haggard died, I wanted to ask David Cantwell a few questions for this column, both about his book and about the impact of Haggard’s life, music, and death on the music world, and on him. We finally caught up for that conversation.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write Merle Haggard: The Running Kind?
David Cantwell: Well, the short answer is: I love Merle Haggard!
The longer version is that it seemed like there might be a niche for a Haggard book. First of all, there had never been one (not counting his autobiographies). That seemed crazy to me, particularly since the Hank Williams and Johnny Cash bookshelves seem to grow longer by the month. There’s never been much of a tradition of country music criticism, either — particularly critical, non-academic country books — so that was another motivation. And, finally, with all the I’m-proud-to-be-country records dominating the radio this century, I thought a Haggard book might jumpstart a conversation about where those sorts of songs came from, and the class politics that walk with them hand in hand.
How did Haggard fans receive the book?
I think fan reactions depended mostly on what expectations they brought to the book. The Running Kind is not a biography. It’s criticism. I listened closely to Haggard’s work, in its contexts, and tried to think about how his music works, how it feels, why it’s so important to so many. And my sense is that readers who approached the book on those terms found it helpful. The book was only reviewed maybe a dozen times but all of them [were] really enthusiastic. That was very gratifying.
At the same time, some fans clearly wanted the book to be a biography and so were disappointed — sometimes quite bitterly! I can’t blame them. I’d like to read a good Merle Haggard bio myself. But I don’t want to write it. For me, the music’s the magic. By contrast, biographical details are merely interesting.
Do you know whether or not Haggard read it? Did he ever contact you about it? Did you talk to Haggard for the book?
I’d interviewed Haggard a few times through the years because I was doing a story on him here or there, and I used some of that in the book. Not much. And though I got the book to his people, I don’t know if he read it. The Running Kind says pretty unmistakably that I think Merle Haggard is a Great American Artist. Full stop. But I was also critical of some aspects of his career. So if he did check it out, I’m unsure how he would’ve responded.
But I didn’t speak with him for the book. I didn’t even try. He’d already told his version of his story twice, and I didn’t see a point in getting a third version of it from him. This was my version, about how and why Merle mattered to me and how I made sense of Haggard mattering to the country audience and to the country. And I have to say it took a while, but I finally figured something out for myself while writing the book.
The Running Kind is about the work of the artist Merle Haggard. But the artist who is at work in The Running Kind is … me. That probably sounds way arrogant, I know, but I think it underscores the sort of writing I’m most interested in doing now.
What are the three Haggard albums that everyone should listen to if they want to understand his music?
I think to really understand Haggard — the artist, I mean — you have to engage the catalog. You have to take on the whole big body of work. He’s that complex, and then his complexities are complex, and so on.
I was always struck by something Bob Dylan told the rock critic Mikal Gilmore. Anticipating his own death, Dylan said, “The day’s gonna come when there aren’t going to be any more records, and then people won’t be able to say, ‘Well, this one’s not as good as the last one.’ They’re gonna have to look at it all.” That’s not true for every artist, I don’t think, but it’s true for Dylan. You can’t sum his achievement up by saying, listen to Blonde on Blonde and, uh, Blood on the Tracks and … Time out of Mind! Or whatever. The same is true of Prince, and it’s true of Merle. His canvas is too vast, there are too many essential insets, there’s just too much life there to whittle it down to a short playlist. Or even a long one.
But! You’ve still got to start somewhere, right? So let’s say … Pride in What I Am (Capitol, 1969), which I nominate in the book as the greatest country rock album ever; and Hag (Capitol, 1970), his most consistently political album; and Serving 190 Proof (MCA, 1979), arguably his best album. Or maybe instead, go with Mama Tried (Capitol, 1968) and Someday We’ll Look Back (Capitol, 1971) — also arguably his best album, and one of his twenty-first century efforts, like If I Could Only Fly (Anti-, 2000).
You could do several more three-packs like that without duplication and without any significant drop-off in quality.
How does the blues influence Haggard’s music?
Like so much about Haggard, I’d say the truest answer to that question is a contradiction: The blues didn’t influence Haggard much at all, and the blues influenced Haggard enormously. What I mean is that while Haggard had some exposure to black blues musicians growing up, and while he occasionally mentioned black bluesmen in his songs, he was never a blues hound, especially when young and impressionable. He was a country music kid. His heroes, especially Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, were big, big blues fans. Their music, like country music generally, could not exist without the blues. So Merle’s absorption of the blues was profound but mostly second hand. Even when he does his I Love Dixie Blues album, the main music he highlights is not, say, Louis Armstrong’s or Son House’s; it’s Emmett Miller’s. Now, Merle is a blues impulse artist. Per Ralph Ellison, he fingers the jagged grain of life’s troubles in a tragicomic voice. But the blues as music is something he mostly picked up from other white people.
What can we learn about Haggard from his “quiet storm” period?
The “Working Class Poet” was also kind of a sex machine!
Quiet Storm is the sexy, swoony early 1980s R&B style named after the Smokey Robinson hit. In the book, I call some of Merle’s 1980s records the country equivalent to Quiet Storm. These tended to feature really slow tempos, though not always, and a lot of electric piano and jazzy guitar noodling and sax solos. “Natural High” is my favorite. “Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans.” “It’s All in the Game.” But even when he’s singing about a broken heart in this period, he still sounds a little like he’s coming on to us. On “Going Where the Lonely Go,” it sounds like where the lonely go is a boudoir.
Haggard’s death likely hit you hard; what do you miss most about him, and in what ways do you think our culture will be poorer without him?
Yeah, it did. And it still sneaks up on me. And will. Like a lot of at-a-distance fans, I sent out birthday wishes to him that morning on Facebook. Later, out of the blue, or so it appeared, I got a press request from Juli Thanki at the Nashville Tennessean, wondering if I could answer a few Merle questions. And I wrote back, joking, “He didn’t die, did he?” I had to take a few minutes…
But I don’t miss him, not yet, because that music isn’t gone. It’s forever, or something approaching it. And also because the music’s all any of us in the audience ever had to begin with. Also, I’m optimistic there’s music to come. All this century, he would tell interviewers that he was working on this or that project but then you’d never hear of it again. I hope he wasn’t just talking about doing a Milton Brown tribute. He subtitled his Roots album “Vol. 1,” so my fingers are crossed there’s a Vol. 2 in his vault and maybe a 3. But if there’s not … “Vol. 1” is sure swell.
I’ve also been really happy to see that his death prompted so much good writing. Even a decade or two ago, I’m not sure that would have happened. But his profile rose, and critical aesthetics shifted his way. If you’re on the lookout for smart and sensitive Haggard obituaries, I’d recommend Alan Scherstuhl’s piece in Slate, Amanda Petrusich at the NewYorker.com, Kaleb Horton at MTV.com, Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Pitchfork, and both Mikal Gilmore and Jason Fine’s work in Rolling Stone. All of that was just great to see.
What I’ve been thinking about lately is … where does Merle go from here? Will his music be kept alive by current artists, and ones to come? Who will take Merle’s music and make it sound like right now? The way Merle did for Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell? As Merle used to sing, updating Lefty, I’m throwing horseshoes over my left shoulder … I hope Haggard’s legacy is a legacy that is ongoing and alive.
You, Haggard, and Prince are having dinner together. What do you talk about?
Well, as I have apparently also kicked the bucket in this scenario, I suppose my first question would be: “You guys know how I died?” After we got that all straightened out, I suppose I’d toss out a question. “What is freedom?” Or maybe, “What does it mean to be a good man?” Or, “Have either of you run into your dad yet?”
And then I’d listen.