There seems to be an unwritten law dictating that the more successful a country singer becomes, the less he feels the need to write his own material. Ever the iconoclast, 73-year-old Merle Haggard bucked against that tendency by writing and producing his jazzy, loose, melancholy new I Am What I Am. The opening track, “I’ve Seen It Go Away,,” sets an appropriately bittersweet, elegiac tone as the impeccably grizzled Haggard reflects on the passing of time, the transitory quality of success, and seven decades of life lessons picked up in prisons, barrooms, and boxcars. The following track, “Pretty When It’s New,” expounds on the ephemeral nature of love with a bemusement that doesn’t even attempt to hide a deep underlying sadness.
I Am is the product of an old man staring down the specter of death (Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2008), lingering playfully over pet obsessions like trains (“Oil Tanker Train”) and Western swing (“Live And Love Always”) and contemplating simple pleasures alongside life’s most profound questions. It ends on a quietly shattering note with the powerhouse title song, a statement of purpose and manifesto on which Haggard reconciles his outlaw, rambling past with his mellow, spiritual present. Haggard began his career as a badass, but I Am is blessed with the humility and grace of a legend at peace with himself and the world around him.