Album of the Week – Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am – Vanguard Records
Article by Don McLeese – Sonic Boomers
There are at least two ways you can take the title of the latest from a country legend whose career spans more than a half-century. You can hear it as a prideful declaration, a Popeye-style “I Yam What I Yam” or Sinatra-esque “My Way,” a chip that has been on the Hag’s shoulder since the days of “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” (not to mention “The Fighting Side of Me”).
But you can also hear it as an expression of profound humility, from an artist who long ago left behind any pretense and posturing, who acknowledges his failings and limitations but who has found comfort in his own skin. This is what I am, the title says. For better or worse. It’s an admission without apology, a lesson in perspective from what life, and especially love, has taught him.
Title aside, what’s truly special about the latest album from Merle Haggard is that there’s nothing truly special about it–no broadsides on the political state of the world, no startling changes of direction, no concept that fits on a bumper sticker. Instead, this is simply Merle Haggard, relaxed and intimate, up close and personal, doing what he does best. And what no one does better.
At the age of 73, the creatively vital artist has nothing to prove and nothing to hide. Yet there is no sense here that his debut for yet another new label finds him going through the motions. Most of the songs are superior, the phrasing impeccable, the band an inspired blend of Haggard’s Strangers with guest musicians including Dobro virtuoso Rob Ikes and drummer George Recili (from the band of Bob Dylan, Haggard’s occasional tour mate, and sounding particularly jazzy with the light percussion touches here).
Co-producing in his own studio with the veteran Lou Bradley, Haggard lets a few rough edges and conversational asides reinforce the intimacy and immediacy of the music, directing wife Theresa though their duet on the dancefloor-filling “Live and Love Always,” encouraging musicians such as Ikes and pianist Doug Colosio in their spotlight turns, providing the occasional off-the-wall remark (“Do you think Louis Armstrong played the blues when he stepped out on the moon. Ha-HAH!”).
If the artist has no one to please other than himself, he still has standards to maintain, which he does through the strength of his songwriting. Even when Haggard was at his commercial peak, at a time when country albums of the ‘60s and ‘70s typically offered a couple of hits and a whole lot of filler, his releases were distinguished by gems that never made it to the charts.
“I’ve never been much at making believe, don’t have any tricks hidden up my sleeve,” sings Haggard in one of those classic country waltzes that might have highlighted any of those albums, though lacking the production sheen that airplay would require. What’s distinguishes the song–and the album as a whole–is the bittersweet wisdom of an artist who has seen it all and learned some hard lessons from his experience.
Even the love songs, and there are plenty of them here, have that weathered quality. He offers two thematic sides of the same romantic coin with “Pretty When It’s New” and “We’re Falling in Love Again.” The former song, comparatively jaunty, suggests with its opening line that “Love’s always pretty when it’s new,” that “pretty” inevitably fades, that it either develops into a deeper emotion or disappears.
Haggard celebrates that depth in the latter, as gorgeous a song as he’s ever written, but one that demands every decade of experience that he brings to it. “The children are grown now, as our sunset appears,” he sings with languid tranquility. “We’re falling in love again, after all these years.”
The centerpiece of the album is “How Did You Find Me Here,” written with wife Theresa. It’s a song about hitting bottom and finding redemption. “I thought I’d been left here to die,” he sings. It sounds like a love song, until the spoken word coda, “Thank you, Lord,” makes it seem more like a hymn. But maybe it’s both.
The 12-song album saves the stunner for last, with a title song that is stripped to the bone and cuts to the heart. A credo from a man and his guitar with an almost subliminal rhythm section, it combines a sense of purpose–“I do what I do/’Cause I do give a damn”–with an affirmation of faith: “I believe Jesus is God/And the pig is just ham/And I’m just a seeker/And I’m just a sinner/And I’ll be what I am.”
Yes, the line about the pig clanks in the ear. But the flaws are as much a part of the artist as his strengths are, giving this unvarnished album a power beyond polished perfection.