David Cantwell is a freelance writer and critic based in Kansas City. He’s had a long and storied career in music journalism, which he lays out at length in our interview. He ends the discussion of his career, however, with one important point: “I was only able to do the work I describe… because my wife encouraged me to do it and because she was successful enough in her own profession to be able to support us both while I did it.” David has just released an expanded edition of The Running Kind: Listening to Merle Haggard.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I’d always wanted to be a writer since I was very young. In high school, that ambition began to focus more singularly on becoming a critic. Not entirely sure why. I remember I used to write capsule movie reviews all the time, just for myself, and then I wrote album reviews for my high school newspaper, The Wildcat: I think Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy was my first (I liked it!). I eventually wound up at the University of Missouri—Columbia, double majoring in journalism and English lit, and when I noticed that the MU student newspaper, The Maneater, didn’t run music reviews, I wrote a letter to the editor complaining about it and offering my services—which to my surprise they took me up on. Wrote reviews for them and did a few reported music pieces too.
When I started grad school there in 1985, in English, all of us were just sorta thrown into teaching freshmen comp classes to earn our keep. As a model for that course’s inevitable personal-narrative assignment, I had my students read an essay by the rock critic Dave Marsh—the intro to his Fortunate Son: The Best of Dave Marsh, Criticism and Journalism by America’s Best-Known Rock Writer (Random House, 1985). It worked well in class, I thought, so I wrote another letter to the editor, this one to Marsh’s music and politics newsletter Rock and Roll Confidential (RRC, later renamed Rock and Rap Confidential) about the experience. They never ran it, and I didn’t hear back. But a year or so later, I learned Marsh was coming to campus to speak and I somehow finagled my way into the dinner they had for him beforehand. When I introduced myself, Dave recognized my name from that letter instantly. We stayed in touch a little, and a couple years later he suggested me as someone another like minded young writer, Danny Alexander, should reach out to. This was the late 1980s, during the rock censorship and warning label battles, and when both of us were in KC, Danny and I and some friends started writing and publishing A Sign of the Times, a kind of Midwest-focused version of RRC.