First Listen

First Listen: Merle Haggard, 'I Am What I Am'

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Merle Haggard i i

hide captionMerle Haggard.

courtesy of the artist
Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard.

courtesy of the artist

Back in January, Vanguard Records signed "the poet of the common man," country-music legend Merle Haggard, to its roster. His new album for the label, I Am What I Am, is his first recording since 2007, as well as an unapologetic declaration of self-awareness. I Am What I Am will stream here in its entirety until its release on April 20.

Haggard looked inward for inspiration when recording I Am What I Am; over the course of more than 50 years of making music, he's acquired a lot of knowledge and information about life and what it's about. This album is a culmination and a sharing of that gathered knowledge, as well as a vehicle to showcase some impressive musicianship from both Haggard and his longtime backing band, The Strangers. (Check out the trumpet, piano and guitar solos in "The Road to My Heart" for an example.)

Haggard comes to several conclusions on the new album. Love, for example, is an all-encompassing theme here, and he explores it in all its various stages — "Pretty When It's New" remembers how fascinating and exciting love is when it's just beginning, while "We're Falling in Love Again" is about getting a second chance at happiness.

But the album isn't just about love — at least not just romantic love. Haggard loves country music, and he's not afraid to use it as a means of protest; in the process, he lets listeners know exactly how he feels about America today, both politically and culturally. It's not just cynicism or disgust that he expresses in the album opener, "I've Seen It Go Away," but also sorrow and sadness. As he sings, "When you've seen the very best, the rest can hardly play," and "I've seen our greatest leaders break their people's heart," it's hard not to feel your heart breaking along with his.

"I Am What I Am" closes the album with a straightforward conclusion about life. Haggard rejects the labels that others have given him — tramp, drifter, fugitive, prisoner — and ends up deciding to be who he wants to be. Ultimately, he sings, "I'm just around / I am what I am."

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