Merle Haggard

I Am What I Am – 2010 (Vanguard)

Reviewed by Rick Teverbaugh

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It seems that the legendary country artists who survive to their later years, often make some of their best music during that time. It certainly was true with Johnny Cash and apparently Merle Haggard is primed to follow suit. The evidence of that is spread all over his new 12-song outing.

Haggard has gone introspective, but he has done it in such a way that most of the songs are easy for the listeners to apply to their own experiences. The opener, I've Seen It Go Away, is about losing the best things in life, but while also understanding that it's just the way of life. Without preaching, it makes that experience a universal rather than solitary one. Such is Hag's style throughout much of this material.

His vocal work is a bit raw, but he was never much of a crooner anyway. The voice is expressive and well-suited to the songs. His wife Theresa provides a smooth counterpoint for their duet on Live and Love Always. The lone weak moment is Oil Tanker Train, a piece that seems to make no larger point than childhood recollections.

His band, The Strangers, provide a solid and often terrific backdrop for this material. Especially impressive is Scott Joss' work on fiddle and guitar. Merle's son Ben provides some of the guitar work as well. There are even a couple of swing tunes, powered by Doug Colosio's piano.

Haggard seems comfortable and confident here, not so much unrestrained and unencumbered. The result is a very strong album by one of the great names in the genre.