My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘I Am What I Am’

Too often in recent years, in both song and in interviews, Merle Haggard has come across as a grumpy old man who is often (and sometimes justifiably) frustrated with both the state of the nation and the music industry. His first album of all-new material in nearly five years finds him sounding less cynical and angry, less overtly political, more optimistic — and surprisingly refreshed. Incorporating a variety of sounds — from traditional country and Western swing to folk and Dixeland jazz — he doesn’t break any new ground or cover any territory that he hasn’t visited many times in the past, yet he sounds more connected to the music than he has on his past few releases. He wrote and produced all of the album’s songs, with Lou Bradley assisting as co-producer.

The Hag is joined once again by his always-stellar band The Strangers, sans Bonnie Owens who passed away in 2006 and whose presence is missed. Cast aside long ago by country radio, Merle makes no concessions to contemporary mainstream tastes. All of the tracks on I Am What I Am, Haggard’s first release for Vanguard Records, sound as though they could have been culled from his best albums of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. His voice is showing some inevitable signs of wear and tear, but for the most part he is in good vocal form throughout the album, especially in light of the fact that he underwent surgery for lung cancer in late 2008.

The album opens with “I’ve Seen It Go Away”, a Woody Guthrie-style number with a “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” theme. He makes some social commentary, as he is often wont to do, though he makes his points more subtly here than he has in the past, taking gentle swipes at the country music establishment:

I’ve seen my share of good times come and go,
I’ve seen Bob Wills and Elvis, when they did a show.
When you’ve seen the very best, the rest can’t hardly play,
I’ve seen it, girls, and I’ve seen it go away

and America’s political leaders:

I’ve watched it all completely fall apart,
And I’ve seen our greatest leaders break the people’s heart.
I’ve seen most of what we’ve got have a whole lot better day,
I’ve seen it, kids, and I’ve seen it go away.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of 1981’s “Rainbow Stew”, which is largely forgotten today, but it is an important song to me personally, since this is the song he had on the charts around the time that I became interested in country music.

Less cynical is “Pretty When It’s New”, a country shuffle that talks about the joy and optimism that come with new found love. “Oil Tanker Train” is the latest in a long line of train songs from Haggard, which reinforces his reputation as Poet of the Common Man. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the classic “Hungry Eyes” as Haggard relives childhood memories, though they are decidedly happier ones than those discussed in the 1969 classic.

My favorite track is the twin fiddle-led Western swing number, “Live and Love Always,” a duet with Haggard’s wife, Theresa, who is no slouch in the vocal department. This leads into the blues-flavored “The Road To My Heart”, followed by “How Did You Find Me Here”, which allows The Hag to show his more vulnerable side:

I thought I could do it
All of it all by myself
I thought I could win every round
Then I hit rock bottom
And the blues I got ‘em
Lifted me out of my fear
But how did you find me here

Then I hit rock bottom
And the blues I got ‘em
And you lifted me out of the fear
But how did you find me here

It’s assumed throughout the song that Haggard is singing to the woman who “saved” him, but the song ends — a little surprisingly and very effectively –with the spoken line, “Thank you, Lord.”

“We’re Falling In Love Again” is probably the track where Haggard’s vocal deterioration is most apparent; however, it works to his advantage in this song about empty nesters who are rediscovering themselves as a couple. Clearly, they are not particularly young, so the somewhat worn voice actually enhances the lyrics.

The title track is a stripped down number in which Haggard turns introspective, examining his strengths and shortcomings — as well as his relationship with God. He is simultaneously both defiant and resigned to accept things he cannot change:

I won’t be a slave, and I won’t be a prisoner
And I’m just a nephew to today’s Uncle Sam.
I believe Jesus is God, and a pig is just ham,
I’m just a seeker, I’m just a sinner,
And I’ll be what I am.

It’s an effective close to a masterpiece of an album; one on which Haggard sounds more contented than he has in years. One might be misled into thinking that Merle has mellowed with age, but those who purchased the Amazon MP3 version of the album, are treated to a bonus track that shows otherwise. The rocked-up “It’s Gonna Be Me” allows Haggard to once again show his more persnickety side, as he proves unable to resist offering the Nashville establishment a few home truths:

Who’s gonna say that the people’s mad?
Who’s gonna say that the music’s bad?
Who’s gonna say it’s lost it soul?
Who’s gonna get them shysters told?
Who’s gonna change to rock-and roll?
It’s gonna be me.

Go out on a tour with The Grateful Dead,
Say a lot of things that ought to be said,
Get me a drummer like Ringo Starr,
Get Keith Richards to play guitar.

This is easily one of the best albums of the year and the perfect antidote to what passes for contemporary country music. Vanguard hasn’t released any singles, probably realizing that they would beating a dead horse by trying to promote this album to mainstream country radio. Still, I Am What I Am has managed to climb to #18 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, proving that there is still an audience for Merle Haggard and real country music.

I Am What I Am is available on vinyl, CD and as a digital download from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A

8 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘I Am What I Am’

  1. Occasional Hope May 17, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I was very pleasantly surprised by this, having been slightly underwhelmed by his last release. There are some really good songs here, and although as you say his voice is showing signs of age, that’s not inappropriate for the material.

    • Razor X May 17, 2010 at 7:31 pm

      I was disappointed in his last couple of releases as well, and I didn’t think he sounded very good on the bluegrass album from 2007, so I wasn’t expecting much this time around. This was a lot better than I thought it would be.

  2. Leeann Ward May 17, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    I think this is quite a good album. The only complaint I have is that the engineering sounds a bit flat…maybe a little more base would have helped or something. His voice holds up rather well though. I liked the bluegrass album pretty well, but agree that it was overall disappointing.

  3. Andrew Leprich May 19, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Gave this album a full listen last night and really enjoyed it. My favorite album of 2010 thus far. Spot-on review.

  4. J.R. Journey May 19, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    I haven’t had a chance to give this album more than a first run-through, but I was also pleasantly surprised with the quality of Haggard’s voice. I quite liked the ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away’ too.

  5. Bob Lipar July 9, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Anything Merle does is outstanding!! He’s like a fine wine that gets better with age!!! Let’s learn to appreciate all his fine music for there aren’t to many REAL country singers left!!! He is a true LEGEND and stylist!! I wish him many more years of success!!! This latest album is spectacular!! I can’t wait to see the PBS special coming up this month!! Merle Haggard IS country music!!!

  6. pwdennis July 10, 2010 at 7:05 am

    I am kind of prejudiced in Merles’s favor since I have always regarded him as the greatest artist in the history of the genre. He is not my favorite recorded singer (ET & WebbPierce are) but when you take the totality of his career, recording artist, songwriter, musician and live performer (he is the best live performer ever) , then this album merely reinforces that feeling

    It’s not his best album by a long shot but it is still very good

  7. Pingback: Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2010 « My Kind Of Country

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