It’s becoming a reliable template for aging country singers to sing from a backwards-looking perspective: about mortality, the passing of time, how much they’ve experienced in life. To sing as if your life, or at least your singing career, were about to end. Call it the Johnny Cash formula, though in his case the twist is that he’s continuing to do it from beyond the grave. Look at last year’s Cash album and its title, American VI: Ain’t No Grave.
Merle Haggard’s I Am What I Am is both similar and quite different. It does not have covers. It is mostly his songs, or ones co-written with a member of his band. It doesn’t involve outside help, session musicians, or a producer designed to rejuvenate. It was co-produced by Haggard, with Lou Bradley. The band is his band, the Strangers. One song, “Live and Love Always”, is a duet with his wife, Theresa. All of those facts are significant. It makes the LP feel more personal, makes us forgive the ways that it feels like a common commercial move these days, how introspective the album is about the passing of time. Yet even though looking back and looking ahead (to the final days) are the dominant perspective, the tone is not overly serious or sedate. There are some sparkly, jaunty songs to match the more sullen ones. Haggard and band sound like they had a heck of a time making this album.
I Am What I Am starts out with the impression that the longer you live, the more chances you have to be disappointed. “I’ve Seen It Go Away”, the opening number, is all about the hurt in being let down, by the promise of love, but also by other sorts of promises, like those made by politicians to the citizens. “I’ve seen our greatest leaders break the people’s heart”, he says in a spoken bridge, and you can’t help but wonder who he’s thinking of while also knowing you’ve experienced the same exact feeling. “I’ve seen many a great tomorrow turn to yesterday”, he decides, seeming to have every facet of life in mind. The best moments in life make the others pale in comparison, leave us more open to disappointment (“When you’ve seen the very best / The rest can’t hardly play”). The way he sings, “I’ve seen ‘em, boys”, about the best times, makes it seem like he’s sitting on the porch handing out homespun wisdom. But that wisdom isn’t hokey; it hurts. It’s a pessimistic, let-down song, but it’s played with the ease of a lark. Its tone is that’s-just-the-way-it-is.
The second song, “Pretty When It’s New”, is even lighter, with a jazzy shuffle and Haggard vocalizing the rhythm of the song in the background. The song still doesn’t hold back its message that love inevitably crumbles as time goes by. “Love is always pretty when it’s new”, the chorus goes. It’s a cynical song, but again light at heart. He does acknowledge that “old love” is sweeter than new, but much harder to achieve.
Love is a dominant theme of the album, at least on the surface. The main style he approaches it with is bluebird-on-the-shoulder, skipping-along, even when the songs are wickedly sad. “Live and Love Always” is Haggard and his wife dedicating themselves to each other in song. “The Road to My Heart” is that early, pretty love; a crush song. In “How Did You Find Me Here?”, love finds him hard on his luck, at his worst. “We’re Falling in Love Again” is the next step, the realization that you’ve fallen back in love with the same person.
Even with all of the love stories, the album seems to be even more about the way time betrays us all. In “Down at the End of the Road”, his “end of the road” seems not just geographical. “Oil Tanker Train”, a nicely descriptive nostalgic look at childhood, is clearly from the perspective of someone thinking his days are numbered. “Live and Love Always” has our couple looking forward to “that bright sunny day”, clearly the point when they’ll be together in the hereafter. That song reveals the way even the heights of love are fleeting, at least in this world. In “Bad Actor”, love and life reveal themselves to be all an act. In “Stranger in the City”, a cheating song, love ends in betrayal. Even the fun of “Mexican Bands”, where he’s hanging out listening to Mexican music and drinking tequila, seems more like the dream of someone who’s not in that place at all, who’s more likely in a more dire place at home, thinking of the colorful dream he can “almost see” through the music.
I Am What I Am ends with the title song. It’s a proclamation of faith, but not one of the strongest songs on the album. Still, there’s something stirring in his stating, “I do what I do / ‘Cause I do give a damn”. Considering it’s been 45 years since his first album was released, and he’s still writing songs and singing them in good form, there’s something refreshing in the impression the album gives of being a personal statement, of Merle Haggard standing strong and saying, “This is what I do: writing songs about life.”