David Haglund of Slate reports for NY1 on newly released book titles and the world of publishing in "The Book Reader."
A few days after September 11, 2001, Merle Haggard played a concert in Kansas City. The crowd chanted for him to play "The Fightin' Side of Me," which warns those who are "runnin' down my country." Instead, Haggard opened with "Silver Wings," a sorrowful tune about a loved one leaving him in an airplane.
A country music superstar since the 1960s, Haggard has always been a more complicated songwriter and performer than many of his critics, and even fans, seem to realize. This is made abundantly clear in "Merle Haggard: The Running Kind," a new book by David Cantwell, which opens with that concert in Kansas City. Cantwell’s book is not a biography but a critical study of the musician’s life and work.
Cantwell shows how Haggard celebrates both getting away and coming back home, being an outlaw and abiding by tradition. He also shows how Haggard’s most famous song, 1969's "Okie From Muskogee," has wrongly pigeonholed the country star as a culture warrior who can’t see the dark side of the American heartland. In fact, Haggard’s career is peppered with songs about prison and poverty and war. He even wrote a protest song about the war in Iraq, which declared that "no one is the winner, and everyone must lose."
But then, every song is a protest song, in a way, or so says Paul Chowder, the narrator of Nicholson Baker’s new book, "Traveling Sprinkler." "Every song," Chowder explains, "presupposes enough peace and quiet that the song itself can be sung, the guitar strummed, the words heard."
"Traveling Sprinkler" is itself a book of peace and quiet. Chowder is a poet who lives in New Hampshire and who has lately taken up songwriting. He tries to write protest songs and dance songs, he takes care of his neighbor’s chickens, tries to gently win back an ex-girlfriend. He laments the injustices of the world, but he also celebrates pleasures so small that most of us take them for granted.
"Traveling Sprinkler" may be too low-key for some, but for me, it was a surprise and a delight, like everything Nicholson Baker writes.
To find other surprising and delightful books, visit the Slate Book Review at slate.com/books.