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