California country music legend Merle Haggard's debut Vanguard release I Am What I Am bristles with all the arresting qualities for which this unrivaled artist is prized. Every song is imbued with the near alchemical power of his dazzling vocal performances, and Haggard’s interpretive mastery and unmatched phrasing continues to bring on impressive measures of sensitivity, candor and authority. Never conventional, often confrontational, always outspoken, the 72 year old Haggard remains as aggressively bent on revealing unspoken truths as ever.
From the astonishing opener, "I've Seen It Go Away," Haggard throws a flurry of knock-out punches. A stunningly blunt rundown of contemporary America’s cultural decay--targeting everything from politics to pop music--it’s prescient and pessimistic, but carries an unflinching honesty that trumps mere cynicism. When he sings “I‘ve seen it all completely fall apart / and I‘ve seen our greatest leaders break their peoples heart” it‘s downright chilling, but the album doesn’t dwell on woe. It’s a typically far-reaching set, but remains centered around a series of contemplations on love, in all of its intoxicating and vexing forms. Examining romance with a poet’s beatific vulnerability, Haggard travels from the ardent bloom of romance to the intricate ensemble of family life to the burnt out confusion of fading passion, yet always returns to love‘s eternally redemptive power. This is Hag at his best, with his hair down, remarkably intimate and sincere.
Over a distinguished fifty year-plus career that’s taken him from a drastically misspent criminal youth to solitary confinement in San Quentin to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Haggard has memorably portrayed, in song, myriad archetypal characters. Whether fugitive, troubadour, misfit or crusader, he’s explored each perspective with a critical acuity, a hard-won skill that’s allowed him to score no less than 40 number one country hits. With I Am What I Am, Haggard really looks inward, going all the way back to his Oildale childhood on sentimental reminiscence “Oil Tanker Train,” which Haggard called “My favorite song on the album--that's a true deal.” Rough-edged numbers like “Stranger in the City” and the rowdy “Mexican Band” carries the set all the way up to the singer’s still barely-controlled hell-raising ways--on the latter, he unforgettably declares “Agave makes me dance on my hands.” But on tracks like “Pretty When It’s New,” a study of new love’s marvelous voltage, and “How Did You Find Me Here” which convincingly takes him from morbid depression to elated joy, Haggard sounds almost re-born, intensely involved and consumed with a sheer sense of wonder that’s enhanced further by those characteristically masterful vocals.
Recorded with his ace band the Strangers, many of whom have been at Hag’s side for decades, at his Northern California headquarters, the Shade Tree Manor studio, and co-produced by indispensable, longtime cohort Lou Bradley, the album was largely a family affair. “It was pretty much just the Strangers, but Reggie Young and Rob Ikes played on it, and we had an additional drummer that worked with us, George Receli from the Bob Dylan band.” Haggard said. “Sometimes we try to find an inspiring player, to come and inspire us.” That quality was clearly not in short supply, and Haggard’s musical concepts and execution continue to flabbergast.
Equally at ease with hard country realism and jazz-informed expression, Haggard’s songwriting is operating at an entirely new and impressive artistic plateau. “Bad Actor” is a remarkable soliloquy on married life and the vortex of hope, guilt, confusion and doubt it can instill. Delivered in the simplest language yet dealing with some highly intricate and subtle emotional issues, it is an altogether moving and unique achievement. Haggard's often closely guarded innocence is completely exposed, showing an incredible tenderness that, considering the counterpoint of his battle-scarred, hardened exterior, creates a profoundly resonant experience.
Closing with “I Am What I Am,” the title track’s unflinching self-assessment crystallizes the singer’s own personal state of the union. Equally relaxed and ornery, confident, focused and as controversial as ever, Haggard knows exactly who he is—“a seeker and a sinner”--and taken with the fierce opening salvo of "I've Seen It Go Away," he still refuses to downplay or shy away from our common, harsh reality. “Its pretty sad actually, it just seems like its one thing after another that we lose every day.” Haggard said. “You get up, turn on the radio and something else went down the drain. I guess people like you and I--people that care--have got to bind together somehow, and maybe doing that through the music is the best way.”