Merle Haggard I Am What I Am

Merle Haggard I Am What I Am
Keith Richards has got nothing on the Hag. At 73, and recently beating lung cancer, Merle just keeps doing what he's always done: making great records. And as the title of this latest effort suggests, he isn't about to change the formula that's maintained his status as a country music icon for over four decades. Musically, his long-time band the Strangers are as solid as ever, with the addition of his 17-year-old son Ben on guitar adding just enough new energy. Lyrically, all of his classic themes are present, from childhood reminiscences ("Oil Tanker Train") to biting social commentary ("I've Seen It Go Away"). The predominant theme of I Am What I Am though is love, and Haggard approaches it from several different angles. The best song on the album is "Bad Actor," a prescient observation of the public roles we are all forced to play. Unfortunately, it's the kind of emotionally complex song that the country music industry doesn't have any use for anymore. But for those who recognize that Haggard has never belonged in that world, it will resonate, along with the rest of I Am What I Am, long after the first listen.

Was this the first bunch of songs you got together after your cancer surgery?
Yeah. These are songs that had compatibility, done over the past two years. Even though we started it that long ago, there are a lot of different stages you have to go through to record nowadays. It's like building a house: you have to know how it will look finished when you start.

There's a lot of romance on this album. Were you thinking of that as a common thread to the songs?
You know, until I look in the mirror every day, I don't feel old. I'm still writing songs about love and young romance as if I was still a participant, and maybe we are. I have a wife who I've been with for 24 years now. They talk about that as an anomaly on television, but it seems like we've only been married for about four years.

There's still a wide age range in your audience
It's hard to believe, but I think you're right. Something has occurred in the last ten years, and they're buying me for what I am today rather than expecting something from the past. That's a blessing, to have your work recognized like that after this long. (Vanguard)