(Pictured: Merle Haggard, on set for a performance of “Okie From Muskogee” on ABC’s Music Scene in October 1969.)
Over the past weekend I spent several hours on airplanes, time made far more bearable by Merle Haggard: The Running Kind by David Cantwell, published in 2013. It’s not a biography of Haggard, although it does tell the story of his life in a roundabout way; it’s a series of essays mostly about Haggard’s songs, albums, and influences, focusing largely on his most fertile period, from the middle of the 1960s through the middle of the 1980s. On Monday, I spent the day listening to the Haggard compilation Down Every Road: 1962-1994.
I have said many times that I became a radio listener partly because my parents were listeners. Before I had favorite stations of my own, I was exposed to whatever they were listening to—polkas and WGN and a lot of country music. And as I listened to Haggard’s early hits this week, I can’t claim to have recognized them, exactly, but the sound was unmistakable. During the middle-to-late 60s, Haggard’s songs (and country music in general) had a particular style—so much so that when Cantwell was quoting the lyrics of songs I didn’t know, I could hear them, and when I played them on Monday, the words came out mostly as I had imagined. Also, country music of that period conformed to a particular sonic template, not always twangy and “down home” (whatever that means, exactly), but often quite smooth, graceful, even gentle, as Nashville’s “countrypolitan” sound pushed for crossover success. Haggard’s songs about hard times, failed love, drinking to excess, and/or the urge to roam are never undignified, even at their most raw and honest, and that includes his most famous crossover hits during this period, “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
Despite the time I spent in the 1970s absorbing my parents’ country music by accident and my years as a country radio DJ shortly thereafter (1979 to 1984, approximately), not all of Haggard’s biggest hits were familiar to me. True, I knew a lot of them: “Mama Tried,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “If We Make It Through December,” “The Running Kind,” “If We’re Not Back in Love By Monday,” and others. But a couple of them were revelations to me, none greater than his 1972 #1 single, “Carolyn,” a dark, literary twist on the old-fashioned cheating song. (The title of this post is a line from “Carolyn.”)
By the time Down Every Road reached its fourth quarter, it included songs I could remember playing on the radio while they were popular, and a few I hadn’t heard since then. I’d forgotten how great “Misery and Gin” is. On “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” Haggard takes an extended guitar solo of the sort that was (and is) rare on country records. I was enthralled again by “Pancho and Lefty,” technically a duet with Willie Nelson on which Haggard sings only the last verse. (I have dug that song for nearly 35 years now; Cantwell doesn’t care for it, and spends a couple of pages explaining why.) And I remember thinking in 1983, as I do now, that if you want to play one song to showcase Haggard’s voice, “That’s the Way Love Goes” is the one to pick.
You don’t have to be a Haggard fan to appreciate The Running Kind, although it certainly helps if you are. To get a taste of it, read about Haggard’s 1969 Music Scene performance here, in which he had to follow Sly and the Family Stone, and in which he subverted a snotty introduction by program host Tom Smothers.
Not every prolific artist’s life, influences, and worldview can be seen clearly through the prism of their work. The souls of some artists remain hidden even after we’ve listened to them for years. But you can read Merle Haggard’s soul through the music he made, and especially in the book David Cantwell wrote about that music. Both of them—the songs and the book—are very much worth your time.