A Kansas City writer wants you to know why the late country music legend Merle Haggard still matters
Kansas City author David Cantwell, who just published a new version of a book he wrote years ago, says Merle Haggard was 'constantly singing about the things that we're still arguing about today.'
Every Saturday when David Cantwell was growing up in South Kansas City, the family took his grandmother to the Safeway at 73rd Street and Prospect Avenue.
That was where, in 1970, Cantwell bought his first record: Edwin Starr's "War."
"Which, through the years, has been kind of a cool thing to be able to say: that my first single was Edwin Starr's 'War,'" he says. "Because it’s a great record, a politically astute record, anti-war — not just anti-Vietnam War but anti-war generally."
But he confesses, the record he actually meant to buy that day was Merle Haggard's "The Fightin' Side of Me" — whose message to "squirrelly" anti-war Americans is, "if you don't love it, leave it."
"Which is not a politically astute record, and is exactly the opposite in its ideas from 'War,'" Cantwell notes. "But I was 9."
He just thought both records sounded really cool, he says. He'd also been observing his dad listening to Merle Haggard, and reading the newspaper, and watching Walter Cronkite.
"And I quickly began to gather from my father’s monologues at the kitchen table, that the things Merle was singing about were things he was thinking about and wrestling with himself," Cantwell says.
Another one of Haggard's big hits around that time was "Workin' Man Blues."
"As I watched my father age," Cantwell says, "'Workin' Man Blues' continued to resonate with me."
The song isn't just about having to work to keep a roof overhead and food on the table for a family. It's about wanting to throw your bills out the window and just take off, Cantwell notes, "but then not doing it and praying that your body would hold up, doing the kind of physical labor that my dad had to do, and so many Americans had to do, long enough so you could actually retire."
Cantwell saw that play out in his father’s life "in really grim ways," he says. "And in my uncles' lives and in so many working class men I’ve known."
All of that partly explains why Cantwell has just spent the last few years rewriting his first Merle Haggard book, which came out nearly a decade ago. By then he'd also co-written the definitive list of Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles. And his writing for The New Yorker and Rolling Stone Country kept him plenty busy.
Cantwell also had political and artistic reasons for putting in his own extra work for the new version of "The Running Kind: Listening to Merle Haggard."
"One of the things that makes Merle really stand out among not just country artists but throughout the history of American popular music — across 50 years and now continuing on into our own era — the big themes of his songs were intersected with the headlines," Cantwell says. "And so he's constantly singing about the things that we're still arguing about today."
He sings about race. He sings about making a living. He sings about marriages that are hard work and don't make it. He sings about patriotism.
"And most of all, he's singing about definitions of freedom," Cantwell says.
Still, Cantwell argues, we don't think of Haggard along with other greats such as Bob Dylan, George Gershwin, Chuck Berry and the Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland.
"I think he's a great American artist who, because he's a country artist, doesn't get included with the greatest of the greats," Cantwell says.
But new generations of musicians — notably women — are paying respects. Last year the Pistol Annies recorded his most well-known working-class lament, "If We Make it Through December." A year earlier, Phoebe Bridgers did her own version, which Cantwell describes as haunting.
Haggard died in 2016. But in his body of work, one can almost hear the seeds of this era's "great resignation," a massive societal re-calibration of our relationship with work, in which 40 million people left their jobs last year.
"One of the things he focuses on a lot, is that a key but rare element of freedom for wage earners is free time. And he sings about the desire for that a lot," Cantwell says.
"How, you know, 'I need to stop and grieve this death,' or spend time with my children or my spouse, or maybe just write a new song or go fishing," he says. "He wrote those things in the '60s and '70s and '80s and '90s, but I think there's still things that we share today."