I Am What I Am
Recorded at the age of 72, I Am What I Am shows no sign that Merle Haggard is thinking of hanging up his hat just yet. He sounds totally comfortable with a relaxed approach to both singing and playing, and remarkably has written nearly all the songs himself. At this stage in his career, you truly get the feeling he is only doing what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. As he aptly puts it in the lyrics of the title track: I do what I do because I do give a damn.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are songs here looking back over his life and career, and also several songs about his wife and family. The first song “I’ve Seen It Go Away” opens the album in fine style, with Haggard in reflective mood musing on having seen it all before. But crucially, he doesn’t come across as bitter or angry, but rather resigned and a little sad, as he sings I’ve seen many a great tomorrow turn to yesterday and I’ve seen our greatest leaders break the people’s hearts.
Haggard’s son Ben plays guitar on the album, and “Live And Love Always” features a lovely lead vocal from Merle’s wife Theresa. It is an upbeat song with sawing fiddle and perky trombone, and has Haggard interspersing each verse with instructions to Theresa on when to come in, and so on. You might think this would grate after a couple of listens, but it really doesn’t, it comes across as playful and is a highlight track.
On a similar theme, “We’re Falling In Love Again” is about a couple re-discovering each other after their children have grown up and gone: The children are grown now, as our sunset appears, We’re falling in love again after all these years. The song is filled out by some lovely relaxed guitar and fiddle breaks which capture the mood perfectly.
Haggard manages to pull off the combination of playing to his country strengths while still introducing elements of jazz, easy listening, and even Mexican music on a song called “Mexican Bands”. Featuring Don Markham on trumpet, it is his tribute to all things Mexican.
Haggard has been conspicuously more successful in the US than in the UK, with a remarkable 38 number one country hits over a recording career of almost fifty years. But, while many artists at this stage in their career might be content to sit back and dwell on past glories, on the evidence of this album, Haggard shows no signs of easing up and would put many younger songwriters to shame.