Merle Haggard is one of the defining voices of country music. And he’s at it again, defiantly proclaiming I Am What I Am while delivering a relaxed and introspective collection exploring life and love as only he could.
Haggard’s career has lasted, ups and downs (but mostly ups, with his string of late seemingly unbroken) for over fifty years. He’s comfortable now, recording his latest at home with band mates that are all old friends, bringing in a few ringers to provide a bit of musical challenge. But that doesn’t mean the anger’s all gone, as witnessed on the leadoff track, “I’ve Seen It Go Away,” which finds a candid Merle reflecting on society’s fall from grace. There’s barely suppressed bitterness beneath the seemingly sweet “Pretty When It’s New,” but the heartfelt gratitude of “How Did You Find Me Here” is humble and real, and “We’re Falling In Love Again,” corny though it might be, is sincere and genuinely touching.
Haggard revisits his childhood on “Oil Tanker Train,” explores domestic bliss and celebrates the simple life with “Down At The End Of The Road,” and recounts his rowdy days with “Mexican Bands.” “Bad Actor” holds a mirror to Buck Owens’ classic “Act Naturally,” while “Live And Love Always,” the disc’s liveliest track, is a joyous duet with wife Theresa that suggests the pair are very happy indeed.
But it’s the surprisingly somber and unapologetic “I Am What I Am” that sums up both man and music. Simply stated and quietly dignified, it’s Hag in a reflective but unapologetic frame of mind, with the wisdom of a life lived to the fullest adding weight.
Haggard’s voice remains a richly nuanced marvel, utterly undiminished by the years, and The Strangers, longtime associates all, slip into easy-going grooves with effortless ease. They’re augmented by bluegrass legend Rob Ickes on dobro, guitarist Reggie Young, and Bob Dylan’s drummer, George Receli. Arrangements are uncluttered and instrumental solos short and sweet, everything crafted with the utmost care to support those magnificent pipes.
It’s not all that much different from the Haggard of old – a little less on the rowdy side, perhaps, as befits a man his age, but still possessed of a certain ornery fire – but the songcraft and production place this one among the best in his extensive catalog.
It’s good to have you back, Merle!