Release Date: Apr 20, 2010
Record label: Vanguard
Perhaps there’s a measure of defiance in the title of Merle Haggard’s 2010 album I Am What I Am, but it’s also a statement of plain fact: almost 50 years into a recording career, there’s no changing the fact that Hag is who is he is, and he’s comfortable in his own skin, broken-in but not worn-out, never pushing too hard but never coasting, either. Sometimes Haggard’s easy touch is too light, slipping into sleepiness, but the striking thing about I Am What I Am is its casual mastery, the subtle shading in his vocal phrasing can make his songwriting appear effortless. And to an extent, it is: Hag’s tending the same fields he has for years, sliding into swaying ballads, stepping it up for a bit of Western swing, tipping his hat toward Mexico, swinging through some Dixieland jazz, a love of railroads and family, spiking his sentimental, nostalgic streak with clear-eyed realism, always blurring the line between a late night in a beer joint and a Sunday afternoon picking on the porch.
It’s becoming a reliable template for aging country singers to sing from a backwards-looking perspective: about mortality, the passing of time, how much they’ve experienced in life. To sing as if your life, or at least your singing career, were about to end. Call it the Johnny Cash formula, though in his case the twist is that he’s continuing to do it from beyond the grave.
MERLE HAGGARD I Am What I Am (VANGUARD) Rating: Every good country song is a three-and-a-half minute affirmation –a fierce testimony that lays bare the weary soul of the songwriter without compromising his style or sensibilities. With deceptively simple structure and a story that may resonate more than any one part of the tune itself, it exudes the confidence of a seasoned outlaw and the 20/20 hindsight of a former loser. On I Am What I Am, the prototypical country singer blows through the well-worn subjects of love, loss, and defiance with a fresh perspective.
MERLE HAGGARD “I Am What I Am” (Vanguard) WILLIE NELSON “Country Music” (Rounder) Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson were already past their hellion years when they united for the 1983 album “Pancho & Lefty.” Relaxed and knowing, it was the product of a couple of onetime outlaw rule breakers who had learned that playing nice was potentially a more lucrative choice and almost certainly a less stressful one. In retrospect the album was a harbinger of compromises yet to come: in the decades since, both singers — once capable of being caustic and moody — became polite shells of their old selves. Often the music they made, particularly Mr.