Merle Haggard: I Am What I Am

RIYL: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dave Alvin

Country-rock legend Merle Haggard has stepped up at age 73 to deliver a late-career classic that should satisfy any die-hard fan. The album showcases Haggard’s longtime band, the Strangers, for an easy-going collection of tunes that sound like they could be from a bygone era but with the crisp musicianship of a modern outfit. Haggard looks both back and forward, covering an array of topics from romance to social commentary. The album oozes classic country vibes with pedal steel, fiddle and honky-tonk riffing in service of Haggard’s still vital muse. Haggard sounds like he was having a great time during the recording process and that energy infuses the album.

Opening track “I’ve Seen It Go Away” has an upbeat, reflective vibe that recalls his classic tune “Mama Tried,” (which became a staple for the Grateful Dead). But the lyrics also lament the political state of affairs – “I’ve watched it all fall apart, and I’ve seen our greatest leaders break their people’s heart.” “Pretty When it’s New” examines the feeling of new love and features melodic guitar riffs and piano plunking in a poignant ballad. “Oil Tanker Train” takes a nostalgic look back at Haggard’s youth when his dad worked for the local railroad.

One of the premiere tracks is “Live and Love Always,” an up-tempo duet with Haggard’s wife Theresa on a hoedown type of tune that recalls the classic collaborations between Johnny Cash and June Carter. The song features recurring fiddle riffs for an uplifting vibe that will surely get any roadhouse jumping. “The Road to My Heart” has a jazzy swing, featuring some Louis Armstrong-style trumpet, as well as great solos from the piano and guitar. “I’m a Stranger in the City” is a short but sweet number that benefits from some great pedal steel.

Another highlight at the end of the album is “Mexican Bands,” a gringo ode to tacos, mariachis and Mexican music in general. The sound recalls “El Paso,” the Marty Robbins song that became another Grateful Dead staple, but with the addition of a horn section for extra festive flavor. The confessional title track closes the album, with Haggard grateful to no longer be a fugitive on the lam and unapologetically claiming to be “a nephew to today’s Uncle Sam… a seeker, a sinner, I’ll be what I am.” (Vanguard 2010)


Bonnaroo announces ’09 lineup’s PopWatch summarizes the Bonnaroo headliners, but you can see the full lineup here.

You’ve got your classic-rock powerhouses (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Elvis Costello), your reunited jam-band institution (Phish), your ’90s-survivor cult act (Nine Inch Nails), your rap elders (Snoop Dogg, the Beastie Boys), your old soul legend (Al Green), your new funk goddess (Erykah Badu), your country icons (Merle Haggard, Lucinda Williams) — and, of course, dozens of your top-tier indie rockers (Animal Collective, the Decemberists, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear)

The article didn’t even mention Wilco or David Byrne. That’s a nice lineup.

The festival runs from June 11th to the 14th. Tickets go on sale this Saturday.


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