Merle Haggard: The Running Kind

David Cantwell
Photo from Merle

Merle Haggard’s music helped invent the America we live in today. David Cantwell explores the fascinating contradictions that define not only Haggard’s music and public persona, but the very heart of American culture.

Merle Haggard: The Running Kind

Publisher: University of Texas Press
Price: $19.95
Author: David Cantwell
Length: 294 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-09
Excerpted from Merle Haggard: The Running Kind by David Cantwell (Copyright © 2013 by David Cantwell) used by permission of the University of Texas Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. For more information visit


"Silver Wings"

Kansas City, Missouri, September 14, 2001

On the Friday after terrorist attacks murdered thousands, crashed four airliners, and reduced New York's Twin Towers to rubble, Merle Haggard played a concert in Kansas City, Missouri. The instant he took the stage, he was pelted with requests demands, really that quickly coalesced into an impatient chant.

Fight! N! Side!

Fight! N! Side!

Fight! N! Side!

It went on and on like that, the fans yelling at the singer, for what seemed like forever. For his part, Merle had the look of a man who knew full well what it was going to be like this night but who was irritated and disappointed just the same when he found out he was right again. He sighed.

For just a second there, the Hag appeared not like a star at all, but like the old man he was, vulnerable and a little frail: At sixty-four, he was only half a decade or so beyond having had his arteries scraped clean by angioplasty. He looked small, too: Merle stands five-feet seven but needs cowboy boots to do it. Most of all, he looked world-weary and a little put out by all these people screaming at him, as if they really imagined they could order him around. Hadn't they been paying attention to the words they'd been singing along with all these years? Not even his own mama had been able to tell Merle Haggard what to do.

Haggard shook his head slowly from side to side. And like so much else in his career, the gesture might have been interpreted in a number of ways. Was he telling the audience that he planned to play what he damned well pleased, no matter how aggressive their requests? Was he expressing disbelief at the audience's enthusiasm for him, or disgust at his fans' insistence upon a fightin' side he seemed, just then, unable or unwilling to muster? Was he merely shaking loose the cobwebs of one more day spent staring out the window of his tour bus? Or was he maybe wishing he'd never stepped off it, longing instead to be back on board a Silver Eagle that was so small and known and comfortable that it felt like home sweet home but that felt like a prison cell, as well, and for the same reason?

Merle didn't speak. He just leaned into the mike and started to sing:

Silver wings, shining in the sunlight

Roaring engines, headed somewhere in flight

They're taking you away and leaving me lonely

Silver wings, slowly fading out of sight

It was a song he'd written a very long time ago, back in the late Sixties when it seemed every song Merle Haggard wrote became an instant country classic and this in an era when country records routinely shimmered with pop appeal and when not a few pop hits exploited a twang and fresh-air charm swiped from their country cousins. The song was "Silver Wings," and in 1969 it had played B-side to his "Workin' Man Blues" single, the hit that had provided him with something of a nom de plume in those final moments before another hit, "Okie from Muskogee," became his new signature song and new identity. "Okie from Muskogee," and its follow-up release, "The Fightin' Side of Me," had freed Haggard forever from mere country stardom, while also chaining him tightly to an image he'd been fighting to live down ever since. Except, that is, whenever he made it a point to live up to it, in the process foiling yet again the expectations of anyone who'd have preferred he live it down. The only person who gets to be the boss of Merle Haggard is Merle Haggard.

Haggard didn't leave the stage that night without performing "The Fightin' Side of Me," of course. But he did it only when he was ready and in the manner he wanted. This show's version of "Fightin' Side" didn't threaten a "boot in yer ass," in the "just-out-lookin'-for-a-fight" style of "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," the still-to-come Toby Keith hit that would soon serve as a "Fightin' Side" for a new century. Merle's "Fightin' Side," this night, was much more in the way of a heavy sigh, and a rolling up of the sleeves in order to tackle dirty but necessary work. And members of that evening's audience (though not without a few to-be-expected exceptions) sang along in the same sober fashion Merle went out of his way to model. "We've been getting a lot of requests for this one this week," he introduced the song. "We hadn't had to play it for a very long time." Another heavy sigh, and then: "Fortunately."

"This country doesn't need to be incited with 'Fightin' Side of Me,'" he explained to me a few weeks later when I asked him about what I'd seen. "It needs to know that we're together, but it sure doesn't need to be incited."

On record all those years ago, Merle had sung the haunted lines of "Silver Wings" with an aching lilt, and had been backed by a doom-saying piano figure that sounded anguished and felt hopeless. Even so, thanks to the song's relaxed melody and the record's shimmering string arrangement, Merle had created a "Silver Wings" back then that felt openhearted and generous. That "Silver Wings" offered heartache at its just-loveliest. Tonight, though, Merle's pretty images metal wings shining in sunlight all too reminiscent of Tuesday's impossibly bright and blue sky sounded hideous. He sang the familiar words in a voice choked and dazed, like he might be about to throw up. The boisterous crowd, which had been spoiling for a fight only a moment before, was shamed silent and turned reverent in a breath. All that rage was pushed aside to reveal the tears and still-bleeding wound beneath.

He closed his show that night, as he so often has, with "Okie from Muskogee." The crowd sang along with every word but sounded especially fierce and determined on the line "We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse" and on that word "proud."

* * *

"I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee."

Since he first sang those words, in 1969, Merle Haggard has enjoyed artistic and professional triumphs few can match. He's charted more than one hundred country hits, including thirty-eight chart-toppers and seventy-one top tens. He's acted in films and on television, entertained presidents and soberly appraised his nation from the cover of Time. He's released dozens of studio albums and another half dozen or more live ones, performed upwards of ten thousand concerts, been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and seen his songs performed by everyone from Dean Martin to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Elvis Costello, from Tammy Wynette and Willie Nelson to the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. In 2011 he was even feted, alongside Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey, as a Kennedy Center honoree. So you can't blame the man for taking a lot of pride in what he's accomplished. As he crowed in one song from the heady years just after "Okie from Muskogee" sent him down the road to becoming not only a star but an icon and even, momentarily, an American idol: "Lawd! Lawd! I've done it all!"

But so what? More than three decades on, Merle Haggard is best known, still, for one phrase, for one musically irresistible hook (love it or leave it, but try not to sing along!), for one politically charged, era-defining, and, as it's played out, era-transcending declaration. He's written hundreds of other songs, and dozens of those stone country classics, but today, when people beyond his core audience recognize the name Merle Haggard at all, it's overwhelmingly for that one damned song. The Hag's done it all, but he's famous ("infamous," some would charge) for a single ideologically loaded shotgun blast of what, from here in the twenty-first century, we can recognize as an early heartland rehearsal of identity politics, one early return of fire in what we now term the Culture War: "I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee."

* * *

In its first draft, the Culture War was called the Generation Gap, and that's where I come in. I bought my very first 45 rpm record, "War" by Edwin Starr, in the summer of 1970, but the truth is I settled for "War" only because the store was out of my first choice, "The Fightin' Side of Me" by Merle Haggard. I was just nine, so if I sensed any political tension between my favorites it was inchoate: I wanted both records because I thought both records sounded cool. I still do. The political contradictions became apparent to me soon enough, though. I grew up in an always hard-toiling blue-collar household, the rock 'n' soul son of a country-music-favoring father, himself a union man who worked his ass off every day for a plumbing and heating company, and my dad's kitchen table talk about the hippies, "the blacks," the Vietnam War, welfare, and, always, the struggle to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table was echoed in any number of Merle Haggard lyrics. I've been thinking about the ideas Haggard sings about ever since, seconding an argument here and rejecting others there but singing along with his indelible melodies either way. I'm not alone: As much as any American musical artist, and certainly as much as any country artist, Haggard, in his music, has intersected with the great issues of his times those surrounding class and race, war and peace, and, most of all, freedom.

This book is the attempt of this critic and more or less lifelong Merle Haggard fan at writing a monograph on the man's music on the songs he's written and, a key but too-often-elided distinction, the records he's made. What it's not is a biography of the man's life. Haggard deserves a doorstop along the lines of what RJ Smith has written recently for James Brown or what Gary Giddens is doing for Bing Crosby (to choose artists I hear as of comparable significance to Haggard), but that tome will have to wait. Of course, the basic plot points of Haggard's life get covered here. I've been fortunate to interview Haggard a few times over the years, and will quote some from our conversations, but for the bio bits I've relied almost exclusively on the many times Haggard's already gone on record, at length, about his life: Most notably I've relied on his two autobiographies, the stylish Sing Me Back Home (from 1981, written with Peggy Russell) and the gussied-up transcription House of Memories (1999, with Tom Carter), plus a half dozen or so lengthy magazine profiles over the years, the 2010 documentary Learning to Live with Myself, and countless reviews and previews in daily and weekly periodicals stretching across forty years.

I'm much less interested in recounting Haggard's life story for its own sake (that is, in trivia) than in engaging the character Haggard and his audience have created through the decades. What I hope to offer is strong-minded criticism close listening, in historical and social context, to one of the singular careers in American popular music. Haggard has, at least as of this writing, released a staggering eighty-plus albums (a total that nearly doubles if you count best-of sets and other anthologies), so what follows isn't comprehensive many of my own favorite Haggard tracks don't get so much as a mention in what follows. I am going to focus overwhelmingly on the first half of his career, roughly the middle 1960s through the middle 1980s, when Haggard created the bulk of his best music. I particularly want to look at that period in the late Sixties and early Seventies when his music mattered most widely and intensely and helped to invent the America we live in today. Let's call that Merle's Muskogee Moment, those years when Haggard's work intersected with both the headlines and the pop charts, thanks mostly to his era-defining hit "Okie from Muskogee."

At this point in his career, Merle Haggard is the Okie from Muskogee, a perception as prevalent among fans as detractors. So our first order of business is a reminder that the man known as "the Okie from Muskogee" is neither. Merle Haggard is not, as his image-defining anthem concluded, "from Muskogee, Oklahoma, U-S-A." Strictly speaking, he isn't even an Okie, not in the so-they-loaded-up-the-truck-and-they moved-to-Californy sense seared into our collective imaginations by John Steinbeck's 1939 The Grapes of Wrath and John Ford's film version of the novel from the following year; by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn; and by the Dust Bowl Ballads of Woody Guthrie.

Merle Haggard missed the migration so indelibly documented, and mythologized, by those earlier artists. His story skips the Exodus and begins in the Promised Land, which in his people's version of the American Dream meant the San Joaquin Valley, county of Kern, in a little town (at the time, not much more really than a glorified Hooverville) called Oildale, situated just on the outskirts of the city of Bakersfield, California, U-S-A.

Historians have noted that the movement of southerners during the last century to the industrial cities of the north and to the corporate farms and oil fields of the west shares revealing parallels with the experiences of European immigrants to America. Both groups were viewed as unwelcome, not-quite-white outsiders. As both consequence of and contribution to that perception, they settled in tight-knit communities in a Little Italy, say, or a Little Oklahoma where the old country's food ways, entertainment preferences, religious practices, and other customs to some degree persisted, providing continuity and comfort to displaced people, and where substantial quantities of emotional energy, not to mention one's paycheck, remained devoted to the places and people left behind. Route 66 stands in the Dust Bowlers' imagination as something akin to the place held by Ellis Island in European immigrant lore. Crowded labor camps were these migrants' tenement slums. "Okie" was their Mick or Polack, wop or kike.

In the logic of this comparison, Merle Haggard isn't an immigrant himself, but first-generation, a child of immigrants. And like fellow first-generation songwriters George and Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg (whose parents were Russian Jews), or like Jerome Kern and Sammy Cahn (the sons of German and Austrian Jews, respectively), Merle was born in the Promised Land to parents whose identity would forever be bound up with the Old Country.

Put another way, Haggard isn't a latter-day Tom Joad, yanked from the silver screen and into America from the last reel of John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. He's John Ford the artist son of immigrants (Irish, in the director's case) who's heard the ancestors' stories of struggle and discrimination all his life, even been on the receiving end of some of that contempt, but who ultimately can only imagine the thrill and terror of creating a new life in a new land that, to him, isn't new at all but just... home. And who then turns those imaginings into art.

I like this way of thinking about Haggard because it places him in the company he deserves not only with fellow legends of country music, but right alongside any and all contributors to our Great American Songbook, and shoulder-to-shoulder with Great American Artists, period. This perspective can aid us, too, in trying to unravel "Okie from Muskogee," both in terms of the button-busting pride the song affirms in its bear hug of a particular identity and the deep ambivalence it betrays toward that identity. The song points straightforwardly to what Merle Haggard feels he shares with his parents as a birthright, but it also underscores the great distance he feels, inevitably, from their experience, separated as he is from it by so many years and miles, not to mention by the twists and turns of his very different life. When first uttered in 1969, "I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee" was itself evidence of that distance, of just how far Haggard had come. After all, in the years after his parents transplanted to the San Joaquin Valley that is, in the place and at the time their son would grow up, in the 1940s and 1950s if you'd called Merle an "Okie," this future working-class hero likely wouldn't have taken it as some folksy honorific. He probably wouldn't have taken it at all, and might've even opted to kick your teeth in for a witty rejoinder.

A music critic and longtime Haggard fan, David Cantwell is coauthor of the acclaimed Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, and his work has appeared in the Oxford American, Salon, and No Depression, among other publications.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.