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Country music legend
still at the top of
his game at 73

Merle Haggard - I Am What I Am
(Vanguard Records)
4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: July 30, 2010
Merle Haggard

Review by Tony Bonyata

Merle Haggard's been through a few things in his day. As a young man, he spent three years in prison for holding up a tavern in '57, where - after seeing Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin state prison - he decided to go straight and make a career in music. And what a career he's carved out for himself over the last half century; over 70 studio albums, 96 singles (38 which topped the charts at #1), three Grammy Awards, inductions into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, not to mention a wealth of other awards from both the Academy of Country Music and The Country Music Association.

Of course, it wasn't all smooth sailing. He's weathered heavy drug and alcohol addiction, divorce, the loss of loved ones (his second wife Bonnie Owens died in 2006), lung cancer (part of his lung had to be removed two years ago), not to mention the ups-and-downs of a fickle music industry over the last 50 years.

Not too long after his country music contemporary and good friend Johnny Cash's career got resuscitated through the help of producer Rick Rubin for his American Recordings albums, Haggard has enjoyed his own creative comeback over the last decade, starting with his fantastic album If I Could Only Fly from 2000. Now at the age of 73, Haggard's latest effort I Am What I Am continues in a similar vein of often bittersweet autobiographical recollections backed by sturdy Americana country/folk songs.

Haggard ruminates and recalls fond memories from his past (such as his love for trains as a child on "Oil Tanker Train") as well as taking stock in the past ("I've Seen It Go Away"), but the most common thread throughout this record is that of love. Whether recalling the passion of new love ("Pretty When It's New"), settling into a long- time relationship like an old comfy sweater ("Falling In Love Again") or kicking up a sunny & spirited honky tonk vocal duet with his wife Theresa ("Live and Love Always," where The Hag also delivers a great fiddle line in the style of his mentor Bob Wills) this country legend sounds more content in his own life than ever before.

Haggard also includes other strong tracks that traverse back through his own influences, such as his bluesy Western Swing take on Freddy Powers' "The Road To My Heart," the dusty two-step country of "Stranger In The City," as well as professing his love for Mariachi music on "Mexican Bands." But more than any other song, it's the autobiographical title track, melding stark and honest lyrics with a simple yet absolutely beautiful melody that makes this country music legend's sunset continue to glow all the brighter.

Related articles:

Merle Haggard & Kris Kristofferson - Concert review - Rosemont, IL - Feb. 2010
Merle Haggard (Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival) - Photo gallery - Manchester, TN - June 2009
Merle Haggard - Hag's Christmas - Album review - Dec. 2007
Willie Nelson / Merle Haggard / Ray Price - Concert review - Milwaukee, WI - Mar. 2007
Bob Dylan / Merle Haggard & the Strangers - Concert review - Milwaukee, WI - Apr. 2005
Concertlivewire's Top Ten Concerts of 2003
Interview with Country Music Legend Merle Haggard - May 2003
Merle Haggard & The Strangers - Concert review - Elgin, IL - Apr. 2003

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