I came to country music late.
I grew up listening to what I thought, at the time, was a wide variety of different kinds of music. I listened to The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel. I liked disco music, Top 40 songs, and I was deeply intrigued by rap and hip-hop. I loved the rock music of the 1950’s and 60’s and every now and then I ventured into folk and jazz. I felt I was really expanding my pallet in college when I began to explore groups like The Band and Los Lobos.
Throughout all these phases, country music remained something foreign to me. The deep voices and the twangy guitars sounded like they were for somebody else other than me…a wise-cracking Jewish kid from the north shore of Chicago.
I think I made the mistake that many of us who did not grow up steeped in the culture and landscape of country music tend to make. I assumed that the country music I heard as I flipped around the radio and television represented the entire scope of a genre. It didn’t. Top 40 country music, as it turns out, is just as slick and overproduced as Top 40 rock and roll music.
What I was missing was the more authentic country music. I missed out on the stories and traditions of the music. I missed out on the humor and the heartache. I missed out on the truth.
It was not a long trip for me from The Band and Los Lobos to country music. I found Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and Kris Kristofferson. I realized the direct lines that lived between country and rock and roll, and rock and roll and the blues, and the blues and country, and country and folk, and folk and jazz, and on and on.
Late in his career, Johnny Cash recorded a series of amazing American Music albums produced by the great heavy metal and rap producer Rick Rubin. The songs were intimate and beautiful. Originals and covers performed either solo or with a small band. After Cash’s death in 2003, Rubin released a box set of outtakes and rehearsal tracks called Unearthed. One of the songs that was included in this collection was the great 1978 Merle Haggard song “The Running Kind,” performed with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
“I was born the running kind
With leaving always on my mind
Home was never home to me at anytime
**Every front door found me hopin’
I would find the back door open**
There just had to be an exit
For the running kind”
Seriously? Are you kidding me? And this is only the first verse of the song! Even better, there are only two more verses. There is no “fat” whatsoever in this song, there is nothing unnecessary or showy. There is no symbology. No obfuscation or manipulations. This is just the truth.
I walk into a room, and I want to leave. I can’t be pinned down to one place. I’m the running kind.
The Cash/Petty recording evokes the Johnny Cash glory days. The song sounds like a train, chugging down the tracks. It never stops. It always keeps running.
“Within me there’s a prison
Surrounding me alone
As real as any dungeon with walls of stone
I know running’s not the answer
But running’s been my nature
And a part of me
That keeps me moving on”
I hope that Haggard took a pause after he wrote the line “Every front door found me hoping, I would find the back door open” and appreciated what he had just done. I hope he raised his pencil and paused. I hope his eyebrow arched a bit. I hope his mouth turned up into a sly grin, and I hope he took a drink. I hope he knew that he had just written one of the truly great lyrics of popular music.
There are only three verses in this song, but really there are only two, because the third verse is a repeat of the first verse. Only two verses, because that’s all that the song needed. The truth had been told. The song had been sung. Time to go. Time to run.
So I guess I like country music.
“The Running Kind“
Written by Merle Haggard
Performed by Johnny Cash