Saturday, October 19, 2013

David Cantwell's "Merle Haggard: The Running Kind"

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, Slate, Salon, and No Depression, among other publications.

Cantwell applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, and reported the following:
I’m willing to bet that the accuracy of Ford Madox Ford’s prediction will depend greatly on just who exactly is doing the opening to, and reading of, that page 99. If the reader is someone coming cold to the book, the page in question might stand for the whole, but it might not. That “open…to page 99” is, I take it, just a way of saying, “Turn to a random page.” Or, maybe, “Turn to a random page far enough in that the book should have hit whatever stride it’s going to hit.” Surely, though, randomness will fail to indicate “the quality of the whole” at least as often as it succeeds.

But the writer of that book? The writer will be able to identify precisely how 99 reveals the whole, could do so for any other page of the book, too, and would be happy to do so. Just ask them!

To wit… Most people, but particularly music fans who consider themselves not country music fans, know the subject of my book, Merle Haggard, only for “Okie from Muskogee,” the 1969 crossover hit that drew a line in the sand on hippies, marijuana, Vietnam and other fronts of the culture war, nee the generation gap. My book digs into all of that: I focus on what I call the country star’s Muskogee Moment, that brief Nixon-era period when Haggard’s music made the pop charts, reflected the headlines and helped to invent the polarized America we live in today. But the book is primarily an examination of Haggard the artist—it’s not a biography so much as a critical monograph—and on that score, page 99 is on point. It includes part of my discussion of a 1965 honky-tonk number called “All My Friends Are Going to Be) Strangers,” a recording that was in many ways key to Haggard’s professional and artistic development. “Strangers” was his first significant national hit, it was written by someone else (as were so many of this great songwriter’s signature recordings), and it is absolutely beautifully, despairingly sung. Besides a cultural lightning rod, Haggard is one of the finest singers in all of American popular music.
Visit David Cantwell's website, and learn more about Merle Haggard: The Running Kind at the University of Texas Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue