I Am What I Am

“I’ve never been much at making believe,” Merle Haggard sings on this, his 76th album and first since a bout with lung cancer in ’08. Indeed, one could never accuse Haggard of insincerity, and on I Am What I Am, Haggard does what he does best, offering another solid batch of self-penned songs, uncluttered arrangements and his signature warm vocals, courtesy of a beautiful baritone, now a little deeper and more mature. Sure, his voice quavers a bit more now, and there’s a wistfulness in lines like “I’m looking for a place to hang my hat, and a place to lay me down my heavy logs,” but this is a man comfortable in his weathered skin. And despite the album’s gentle, easygoing air, Haggard, now 73, sounds rejuvenated. His longtime backup band — the Strangers, with son Ben on lead guitar — gently swings and, at times, achieves a jazzy virtuosity (thanks in part to Don Markham’s trumpet), and wife Theresa duets on “Live and Love Always,” making this a more intimate album for the country icon. The most memorable tracks here include the opener, “I’ve Seen It Go Away,” part cultural critique, part lament — though never angry rant — and the self-referential title track, which closes the album on a reflective, and charmingly demythologizing, note. Haggard eschews the labels that have defined his career … whether fugitive, drifter, populist, prisoner … for a more resigned but self-assured declaration: “I’m just around/I am what I am.” Old Hag is aging gracefully and with dignity; there’s a richness and depth in both the way he writes and the way he sings that makes his music — now more than ever — worth cherishing. — TOM BUCKLEY