David Cantwell

David Cantwell is a writer and college English professor from Kansas City, where he teaches "Literature of American Popular Music." He is co-author of Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles and his critical biography of Merle Haggard will be published in 2013.


"Tired of this Dirty Old City: Country Music's Freedom Problem, and Ours…"

Country music’s most frequently, fiercely expressed value since at least as far back as Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and right on up to your favorite Montgomery Gentry single, has been nothing less than… Freedom! Or maybe it’s… Individualism! In country music, as in America, it’s often hard to tell a difference. But we can say that country music believes that Freedom/Individualism is most prized and best cultivated in small towns and their rural environs, what Sarah Palin and others have taken to calling the Real America.

Country nurtures, as well, a concomitant antipathy toward big cities which, the music tells us, crush Freedom and Individualism both. As Merle Haggard demanded at the dead and dying end of the 1960s, folks in places like Muskogee, Oklahoma U-S-A, “like living right and being free.” As he again insisted a decade later, at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, “Big city, turn me loose and set me free.” But it is this very conception of freedom, clipped and wingless and individualistic, that is bound to frustrate precisely the sorts of freedom we all need.

I aim to examine what freedom has meant in country music and how it works. Mostly relying upon the songs of country music’s great freedom fighter, I’ll try to make the case that if Merle Haggard, his country peers, and all of the rest of us desire freedom, then one thing we’ll need for sure is a “Big City.

My Speakers Sessions

Saturday, March 24

4:00pm EDT