With more than 80 albums to his name and a career that reaches back to the ‘60s, Merle Haggard easily remains one of country music’s most prolific artists. He also remains one of the most intriguing. “Okie From Muskogee”, one of his signature tunes, occupies a large place in the American consciousness and rightfully so. Its intentions are ambiguous and the man who sang it has done nothing to demystify it since its release in 1969.
Haggard is a legend and there is much legend that surrounds him: He’s an ex-con who saw Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin; a kid of humble origins who lost his father at a young age; a man who experienced a meteoric rise to fame, made a fortune and lost it; he looms large in the country music pantheon but has never quite claimed all that is rightfully his. All of that, plus he’s as much at odds with what’s become of country music as the middle class insurgents who rose up and tried to reclaim its classic roots in the early Clinton years.
All of those versions of Haggard are represented in this fine volume from David Cantwell, though The Running Kind is not a biography. Cantwell instead probes the man’s creative output, peppering his lucid prose about the Hag’s greater and lesser albums with appropriate details about wives, band members, and various significant moments on the lonely road that the country legend has walked.
However, the author eschews strict chronology. We leap forward and back and sideways in time as we learn about recording sessions and sometimes long-forgotten albums, about how Haggard always managed to be in love with more than one woman at the same time and how he, more or less, seemed to emerge from these difficult affairs of the heart unscathed but with plenty of excellent material. (At least most of the time.)
It’s that twisted and curving road, as well as the author’s chatty, yarn-spinning tone, that make The Running Kind a real joy to read and which humanizes Haggard—a rarity in critical and biographical studies to be sure. Cantwell’s authorial voice may not be for everyone, but he pulls off tricks that other writers often attempt and fail to achieve. (Which ones? Exactly those mentioned above.)
We have political and social context for the biggest moments in Haggard’s output, namely the aforementioned “Okie”, plus “Fighting Side of Me” and “Irma Jackson”. We also understand enough of Haggard’s roots to get why he can perform a song such as “Sing Me Back Home” with such authenticity, to say nothing of the succinct poetry found in its lyrics. (Cantwell avoids call Haggard a poet, perhaps fearing that it’s hyperbole but, like Hank Williams before him, he is nothing less than that.)
Time’s arrow straightens out as we wind into the ‘70s and Haggard leaves his longtime home at Capitol records, a place that was as much home to him as Columbia was to Bob Dylan. Like his good friend and fellow legend Johnny Cash, Haggard fell on hard times in the ‘80s; the hits didn’t come at the rate they used to and by the dawn of the next decade he and Cash had seen their glory fade. His creative output, however, remained strong if not always on the mark. The number of records bearing his name slowed down but he remained a reliable voice, even if his instrument began to waver as time went on.
Haggard has never experienced the kind of renaissance that Cash had, nor would he probably want to; his latter-day output, though, remains as good (and sometimes better) than contemporary material from Willie Nelson and other singers of his generation. His work with Jamey Johnson on the 2012 album Living for a Song (Johnson’s tribute to Hank Cochran) and his duet with Peter Wolf on Wolf’s excellent album from the same year, Midnight Souvenirs (they share the mic on “It’s Too Late For Me”) demonstrate that Haggard’s still got it. Cantwell doesn’t mention these turns in the pages of his book, and he really doesn’t have to but you should know about them just the same.
Cantwell has done a swell job with this book and it’s hard to write about it and not give everything away, so perhaps we should just say that you can easily get lost in its pages, turn down this road and that with it and find yourself admiring and maybe even adoring its subject. There are writers who can analyze creative works as well as Cantwell, but few who can make their subjects come alive so well and so vividly for their readers as the Missouri-dweller can. He doesn’t shy away from letting you know which Haggard recordings he loves best and his selected discography at the end of the book is pretty much spot-on.
Last of all, The Running Kind is one of those critical/biographical works that you will want to read again, so prepare yourself to succumb to its charms. It’s worth it.