University of Texas Press, 294 pp., $19.95 (paper)
As a self-respecting, long-haired, pot-smoking, anti-war, Southern California college student, I detested Merle Haggard's 1969 anthem "Okie From Muskogee." Nonetheless, the tune notched a resounding bullseye with its target audience, transforming the singer from country music hitmaker into a working-class hero and lightning rod in the culture wars. In this fast moving bio concentrating largely on Hag's early career, David Cantwell's chapter on "Okie" is his most insightful as he analyzes its influence on the musical and socio-political zeitgeist of that turbulent moment in America. Before and after, he traces the country icon from an impoverished childhood to his creation of the Bakersfield sound, contextualizing how Haggard's keen awareness of class differences gave him the credibility to speak so directly to his audience. Cantwell, a writer for Slate and No Depression, provides fascinating insights into songs that have become classics of country music. Of particular interest is his comparison of Haggard and Johnny Cash late in their careers, examining how the latter crossed over to become an alt.country hero, while Haggard, for various reasons, has not ... yet. Still, His nearly 40 No. 1 country hits will do for now.
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