Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson were already past their hellion years….
New York Times Article
“I Am What I Am” – (Vanguard)
“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. Nelson’s, felt feeble, embodying slow decline.
New albums from Mr. Haggard and Mr. Nelson, in the spotty twilight of their careers, are carefully calibrated responses to years of style dilution. Both are debut releases on medium-size labels, and both seek to boost the artists’ bona fides by reconnecting them to the sort of classic country they might have been raised on.
Of the two, Mr. Nelson’s project, titled “Country Music” and produced by T Bone Burnett, is the more successful; it’s an often robust album that flaunts Mr. Nelson’s versatility. There are songs about mortality and dark spirituals (“Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down”), but also plenty of mischievous moments (“Drinking Champagne”) and a song about a train.
Plenty of recent albums by Mr. Nelson have felt distant and phoned-in. Here, though, his voice uncharacteristically has barely a hint of lethargy. As a result the soft country waltzes — delivered by a crack band that includes Buddy Miller on guitar, Russell Pahl on pedal steel and Jim Lauderdale singing backup vocals — become richer and more surprising.
On “I Am What I Am,” a collection of slight sketches influenced by the Californian country of the 1960s, Mr. Haggard sounds more fatigued than his old sidekick, his voice less willing to bend. There are some lovely moments of stern self-loathing (“Bad Actor,” “How Did You Find Me Here”); Mr. Haggard is always sharper when pointing the finger at himself than when celebrating love, as he often does on this album.
On both albums the easy breeze of “Pancho & Lefty” is largely a memory. These are artists testing themselves after years of progressive rust accumulation. Neither of these albums is as strained as much of the material these singers have released in the past decade. In part that’s because neither album shies away from maturity, with each singer tackling songs for which age is an asset, not a liability.
For Mr. Nelson that’s “Satisfied Mind,” an argument against frivolity: “Money can’t buy your youth when you’re old/or a friend when you’re lonely/or a love that’s grown cold.”
For Mr. Haggard there’s “We’re Falling In Love Again,” which isn’t about the durability of love, but rather the small thrills of rediscovery:
“We’re having good times again, in old honkytonk bars/ staying out late again, making love ‘neath the stars,” he sings, adding, “The children are grown now as our sunset appears.” It’s a lovely, and rare, fantasy of domesticity. Once again Mr. Haggard is an outlaw.
by JON CARAMANICA