The Curmudgeon: A Column Questioning The Assumptions of Popular Music

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Who is the greatest country music artist of all time?

Before we can answer this question, we must resolve the Sandy Koufax vs. Warren Spahn debate, a debate first sparked by the great critic Bill James. James is not a music critic, but he could be best described as a baseball critic. Often labeled a statistician, James is much more than that, for he uses numbers only as a reinforcement for his piercing, perceptive analysis and his clear, sparkling prose. He’s been as big an influence on my own criticism as Greil Marcus or Paul Williams.

James once asked the question, “Who is the greatest left-handed National League pitcher of all time?” He used that question to make his readers think about what they mean by greatness. Do they mean a short burst of brilliance, such as Koufax’s five incomparable seasons between 1961 and 1965? Or do they mean a long period of sustained excellence, such as Spahn’s run from 1947 through 1963?

And what’s the best measure of greatness? Team-dependent stats such as wins, losses and saves that are often warped by factors beyond the pitcher’s control? By year-end awards, which are similarly warped by the pitcher’s locker-room popularity and surrounding roster? Or do we focus on what the pitcher himself actually does in helping his team by suppressing the runs scored by the other team?

All of this is relevant to music criticism. What is greatness in music? A brief period of spectacular creativity, as displayed by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Grandmaster Flash and Nirvana? Or a lengthy span of consistently terrific work, as displayed by Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young and Bob Mould? And how do we measure that greatness? By sales? By awards? By vocal or instrumental virtuosity? By something else?

If the purpose of baseball players is to help their team score more runs than the opponent, what is the purpose of musicians? If you say, “to make money,” you reduce them to the status of the brokers in The Wolf of Wall Street. In last month’s column on critics polls and best-of lists, I coined the term “aesthetic voltage” as a shorthand for the emotional/sensual/intellectual connection that musicians forge with their listeners. The stronger that linkage, the higher the voltage, the greater the music. This impact is not as susceptible to statistical analysis as baseball, but we’ve all experienced that bond, and it’s a useful way to talk about musical greatness.

That voltage can come from any source—from singing, writing a melody, writing lyrics, creating rhythm, playing an instrument, innovating a sound, innovating a concept. What’s important is the strength of the current. Whether it comes in a few short years or is spread out across decades, what matters is the total number of volts. It doesn’t matter how much bad music someone makes; all that matters is how much good music. You can define the field of competition however you want—greatest hip-hop artist, greatest left-handed National League pitcher, greatest British playwright, best baseball song—but whatever the eligibility requirements, the same dynamic is at work.

There is no lack of contenders for greatest country music artist. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family from the genre-defining Bristol sessions in 1927 must be considered. Great innovators such as Bob Wills and Bill Monroe are inescapable. Honky-tonkers such as Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Ray Price figure in. Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, who dominated country between Elvis and Reagan are all contenders. So are the great innovators of the ‘80s: Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle as well as their modern heirs Alison Krauss, the Dixie Chicks and Miranda Lambert.

For me, though, it comes down to a final four: Williams, Haggard, Nelson and Parton. Parton may be the most talented of the quartet, but she allowed her self-invented persona to eclipse her songwriting talent. Nelson is the most consistent of the four, but he never quite matched the peaks of Williams and Haggard. From 1947 through 1951, Williams had the five best years any country artist has ever had, making him not just the Hillbilly Shakespeare but also the Hillbilly Koufax. But for the total amount of aesthetic voltage, no one beats the Hag. He risked more than any of the others, won more bets than he lost and came away from the table with more chips than Williams, Nelson or Parton.

These thoughts were sparked by the terrific new book, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, by David Cantwell. Unlike way too many authors, Cantwell knows that what makes a musician worthy of a book treatment is not their personal life but their music. What makes Haggard interesting is not the fact that he ran away from home a lot as a teen, not that he served time in San Quentin, not that he went through a series of wives. The only thing that makes Haggard from the hundreds of thousands of other people with similar experiences is his ability to create and perform such striking songs. So Cantwell starts with the songs and tries to illuminate them, bringing in the personal stuff only when relevant.

This is how Cantwell starts the book’s first chapter: ”’A canvas-covered cabin stands out in this memory I revive…’ That’s how Merle begins his greatest record, but before he can even get his thoughts together, he’s being pricked by the sharpened-knife’s edge of James Burton’s acoustic guitar—’A canvas (stab) covered cabin (stab) stands out…’ Those stabs, and the way Merle’s voice flinches ever so slightly in response are our first signals that this particular backward glance will not be in the least ‘nostalgic.’ That’s a label routinely used to describe country music, and Haggard’s music specifically, sometimes even with good reason. But while ‘Hungry Eyes’ begins with a memory revived, what follows—basically, a laying out of the material conditions that kill people’s spirits and that, more slowly, kill people—is not the Good Old Days.”

Cantwell uses that song to set up the Haggard Family’s migration from the area around Muskogee, Okla., to the San Joaquin Valley of California, a trip much like the journeys of Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Refugees” and John Steinbeck’s Joad Family in The Grapes of Wrath. Haggard’s mother’s eyes were often sunken with hunger during these days, and that sets up Cantwell’s discussion of Haggard’s most Guthrie-like song, “California Cottonfields.” Back and forth the book goes, detailing the emotional drama of Haggard’s key songs and then pulling the authorial camera back to reveal the biographical context for the song. But soon the camera zooms back for a close-up of another song.

By taking this approach, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind does what a music book should do: it enriches our experience of the music. When we go back to the records, we enjoy them more for having read the book. Cantwell finds themes running Haggard’s work that we have all sensed without quite articulating them. Perhaps the most prominent theme gives the book its title. Haggard, Cantwell argues, is always longing for an ideal home where he can settle down, but once he does, he’s off running again, looking for something better somewhere else. These contradictory compulsions—wanting to put down roots, wanting to move on down the road—give the songs not only their dramatic tension but also their widespread resonance, for Haggard is not the only American wrestling with this paradox.

To appreciate this book’s achievement, it helps to read it alongside Buck ‘Em, the autobiography of Buck Owens, Haggard’s friend and rival in the Bakersfield, Calif., country-music scene. Haggard played bass for six months in Owens’ band, later married Owens’ ex-wife Bonnie and matched Owens hit for hit with the driving twang of the Bakersfield sound. Buck ‘Em is a more typical music book: the star talks about his memories into a tape recorder and a writer-for-hire (in this case, Randy Poe) transcribes those tapes and shapes the results into a narrative. The result is usually a lot of new details and no depth, a lot of “this happened, then that happened,” but little insight into why it happened.

If you love Owens’ music as much as I do, you’re glad for the details—and you’re glad for the two-CD, 50-track audio anthology with the same title as the book. But you don’t come away from reading it with a new way of hearing the songs, as you do after reading the Haggard book.

Of course, a barrier for any newcomer to Haggard’s music is that he’s best known for two of his weakest songs: “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” These polemical cartoons don’t feel lived-in the way most of his songs do; they feel put on like a rented tuxedo. And if you at all resembled the liberal, hippie straw man that Haggard attacks in these songs, as I did when I was younger, you were likely to be as offended as African-Americans were by Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” comments.

Cantwell, like Bill James a Kansas City writer, writes about his own discomfort at being the target of these songs and his struggle to reconcile that unease with his love for Haggard’s music. He resolves the dilemma by admiring the songs for their craft if not their content. I find him unconvincing on this point, for I don’t find the songs persuasive from any angle. And I resent those songs for keeping me away for a long time from one of the richest catalogs in American music.

Cantwell moves through that catalog like a hometown guide, pointing out the sites you might have overlooked. When he gets to one of Haggard’s later singles on Epic, 1985’s “Kern River,” the confession of a haunted man who can’t bear to visit the Bakersfield river where his darling drowned, Cantwell is at his best.

“In a noisy country-radio mix,” he writes, “that might include the country-pop Exile declaring ‘She’s a Miracle’ without sounding miraculous or Alabama singing ‘Forty Hour Week (For a Living),’ like they’d never heard of the working man blues, Merle’s record screamed quiet and startled you alive… His dreams (‘I grew up in an oil town but my gusher never came in’), his movements (‘The river was a boundary where my darling and I used to swim’), his very agency (‘I live in the mountains, I drifted up here with the wind’), are beyond his control. He did have this grim song to write and sing. But even his own craft—the alliteration and internal rhymes of ‘one night … moonlight … the swiftness swept her life’—can do nothing but slant inexorably toward doom.”

It’s for songs like that that Merle Haggard is the greatest country music artist of all time.

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