Merle Haggard: “I Am What I Am”
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Merle Haggard is probably never going to enjoy a Johnny Cash-style comeback as an aging country veteran who suddenly appeals to the young and the hip. It’s not that he’s incapable; 72 years old and a recent cancer survivor, Haggard is in astonishingly fine voice, sounding weathered but robust, as in-control of his magnificent instrument as ever before. And as for songs—hell, the guy can write whatever he wants to. It’s just that, honestly, I don’t think he has even the slightest interest in making a “comeback,” or in reinventing himself as something more fashionable or iconic. He sounds like he’s simply having too much fun making the music he wants to make, as his recent string of laid-back gems suggests.
I Am What I Am, the latest and arguably greatest of these latter-period delights, is his first album since 1997’s The Bluegrass Sessions, and, as the title suggests, it’s a break from the genre exercise of that album and a return to making the kind of warm, traditional country he’s specialized in over the last ten or so years. In fact, you could almost interchange the title of this album with the title of his 2001 triumph Roots; on the one hand, this record is a simple statement of who Haggard is—now and always, as a musician and as a human being—but it’s also a celebration of, well, his roots: It pays homage to the pre-rock parlor songs and early forms of country that he grew up on, touches on the Texas swing of his early days, borrows some of the spirit of outlaw country, and ultimately leans heavily toward the casual, living-room country picking of albums like Roots and If I Could Only Fly. In other words, it’s an album that affirms the path he’s taken and revels in the place where it’s lead him, which is about as close to an American Recordings, back-to-basics record as Hag’s going to get.
Which is to say, not very. For one thing, Haggard has no interest in stripping his music to its very marrow the way Rick Rubin did those Johnny Cash albums, nor does he have any interest in obsessive morbidity; I Am What I Am is positively teeming with life, from its casual, spontaneous sound—the album was recorded in Haggard’s studio with his long-time band, and the sessions here are warm, informal, and laid-back, the chemistry between the musicians palpable and Hag sometimes shouting cues to his supporting tram—to its sometimes-obvious, sometimes-sly nods to the music he loves, be it in the old-timey country of “Oil Tanker Train” or the soft-shoe swing of the brassy “The Road to My Heart,” songs that bow affectionately toward the stuff he grew up on, to songs that winkingly reference his own status as a country legend, be it in the clever, mirror-image reworking of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” in “Bad Actor,” or in the impish celebration of the good life as symbolized by the Mariachi-flavored “Mexican Bands,” a song that wins bonus points for rhyming “manana” with “I’ll smoke what I wanna.”
But if music is one of the great loves of Haggard’s life, it still takes a back seat to his love for wife Theresa, who appears here as his duet partner in the terrific swing number “Live and Love Always” and who is sort of the unspoken muse of the record, which dwells in love songs that show Haggard to be a romantic to his core. He’s got plenty of piss and vinegar left in him yet, as the wearied cynicism of opener “I’ve Seen it Go Away” suggests, but that song fades gracefully into the sweet, new-love flush of “Pretty When It’s New,” an ode to innocence sung from a place of experience. And if Haggard indulges his sentimental side throughout the album—not only in love songs but in childhood flashbacks and a tender remembrance of his family’s long-time home—it’s a hard-won sentimentality, less about nostalgia than in looking back at a life well-lived.
Not that he’s finished living yet, of course. The title track, which ends the album, makes it clear that Haggard’s road hasn’t ended; he admits that he’s no longer an outlaw, but he is a “rambler” and a “seeker,” and though he’s comfortable being who he is he knows that his story isn’t over. I Am What I Am, then, may not be an ending, but it is a stirring and satisfying chapter, an album of simple pleasures from a legend who’s still making some of the finest music of his life.