Getting Gone: David Cantwell’s Take on the Iconic Merle Haggard

“The running kind” is how Merle Haggard is described in the title to David Cantwell’s new musical biography of him, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind. That might sound like a standard country and western trope that’s easy to understand – the man who keeps on moving, rolling like a freight train, rambling like the wind. We’ve seen it in a hundred Westerns, heard it in even more songs. But Cantwell carefully explicates a unique variation on that phrase, tracing it through Haggard’s songs and life: the man who’s always drawn to run, then drawn back to home, then drawn to run again, and so on. He isn’t perpetually running away from home, he’s running both away from it and back to it, perpetually.

It’s a restlessness that breaks him out of one prison and sends him towards another; looking around the corner for something better makes him look toward the future and the past, at the same time. Describing Haggard’s singing, Cantwell writers, “The Hag mingles optimism with resignation, wants to have it both ways because both ways is how he feels.”

There are contradictions within this notion of freedom and within the notion of imprisonment that the freedom is a seeming reaction against. Cantwell details how vividly this conflicted idea is spelled out within Haggard’s songs. He writes, “All those train songs, all that running… Merle never ends up anywhere any better. But he does get gone…” These descriptions put train songs, prison songs, love songs in a different context than just the obvious ones, and put Haggard as an artist at the center.

Tied up with this is Haggard’s own life and the perspective on it that he voices in songs, interviews and autobiographies – his identification as an Okie, though his family fled Oklahoma for California before he was born; how his career was affected by his own personal mistakes and trials. The book deftly walks the line between biography and critical tour of his music — and that’s a fine line to walk.

I have problems with biographies – they try to step in the subject’s shoes, imagine his or her thoughts and motivations, in a way that inevitably seems phony. I have problems with book-length music criticism – it generalizes, hyperbolizes, glosses over minor works in favor of strictly major ones. Cantwell avoids all of these problems, while doing both biography and music criticism. He tries as best as someone can to separate out where Haggard’s music and Haggard’s life intersect, or at least tries to be straight about when we can’t know for sure that a song was expressing his life, even if they echo each other.

As a story, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind ends up interesting us as much in Haggard as in the people around him – his band, his ex-wives/ex-duet partners (sometimes the same), his songwriters, producers, label executives. Within Haggard’s own story, and the story of his music, lie the stories of many other fascinating individuals, from Liz Anderson (talented writer of some of Haggard’s first hits) to Roy Nichols (Haggard’s guitar idol, who ended up in his band for 20-plus years) to Bonnie Owens (singer who married Buck Owens and later Merle Haggard) and onward. And there are so many more – Haggard’s mentors, partners, betrayers, lovers, friends, competitors. In the progress of telling Haggard’s story, he’s telling larger stories about the history of country music and, really, the history of America.

A major moment in the book, and a major song, is of course “Okie From Muskogee”. Cantwell calls it “his Muskogee moment”, the moment when this song – possibly intended as a joke – captured the attention of the country, became a lightning-rod in emerging ‘culture wars’. Cantwell again navigates that ground in a thoughtful way, spelling out what it meant to people and how it changed Haggard’s persona while also working through the song’s qualities and origin.

He also details how “Okie” unexpectedly brought into country music the idea of the defensive, reactionary “country boy”, defining the imagined audience as an “us” versus a “them”. As interesting to me as a song is the follow-up hit “Fightin’ Side of Me”, a song that solidified the listener perceptions initiated by “Okie” while being altogether a more tough and instigative song.

Cantwell ponders how things might have been different had Haggard followed his original plan and instead released as an “Okie” follow-up “Irma Jackson”, a story of interracial love. Instead he released “Fightin’ Side of Me”, which took the intended or unintended anger in “Okie” and amplified it, fighting perceived enemies of country living and American identity… enemies of all that’s good and virtuous, apparently, like war and the flag. “Let this song I’m singin’ be a warnin’,” he sings, “If you’re runnin’ down my country, man / you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”

What interests me most about that song and “Okie” are how clearly you can hear their influence in the country music of today, and across the past couple decades — not just in the obvious songs that defend America from strawman peaceniks, but in songs that put forth country folk as real Americans, in opposition to those others who would question their way of life. And then stemming from that you have all of the songs that set up the country audience – and by relation, the American audience — as a monolithic one which thinks one way, which knows what’s true and what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong.

From the moment those two songs are discussed in the book I had that train of thought running in my brain, certain I was going to unveil a brilliant theory about those songs’ influence on country music. It was going to be the basis of this column. And then I reached pg 267 of 279, when Cantwell of course beats me to the punch – “Toby Keith’s “Angry American” is the “Fightin’ Side” of the post-9/11 era, and major hits like Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town”, Rodney Atkins’ “These Are My People”, Alan Jackson’s “Where I Come From”, Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman”, Blake Shelton’s “Hillbilly Bone” and Randy Houser’s “How Country Feels” (among many, many others) are all still declaring “I’m Proud to Be an Okie from Muskogee.”

When he writes “among many, many others”, he speaks the absolute truth, and that trend shows no signs of stopping, though variations on the formula keep coming. This year we’ve had examples like Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” (even if its hip-hop appropriations suggest some sort of inclusiveness) or even Florida Georgia Line’s “Round Here”. The latter is an example of what’s becoming one of the most common types of manifestations – taking the ‘aw shucks we’re just country folk’ approach, with its built in tone of defiance and cultural separation, and putting it to work within an apolitical context of flirting and partying. The attitudes Haggard first sketched out in those two hits has infiltrated country music, period.

Does that mean that the old argument about today’s country music not drawing from the past is hogwash? Probably. The country hits on the radio just aren’t drawing the right parts from the past for some people. Haggard’s presence is everywhere, but maybe not always showing up in the ways ye old country music lover might expect or want it to.