Playing himself in Michael Mabbott’s 2005 country-rock mockumentary The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico, Merle Haggard turned in what may be his best performance of the decade. “I’ve never been able to sing when I was dead on my feet, let alone really dead,” he says, referring to the fictional title character, a Canadian-born slapstick version of Gram Parsons who changes his name from Jim Jablowski to the more poetic Terrifico moniker after being dazed by Haggard’s wicked sucker punch in a Nashville bar. But the insight applies equally well to I Am What I Am, which is a sure-footed, perfunctory, time-obsessed, and hilarious version of the deceptively relaxed Western-swing shtick that made Haggard famous. He sings with admirable intensity—if he’s dead on his feet, it doesn’t show. His voice is more quavery than it was at mid-decade on the overproduced Chicago Wind, but you could chalk that up to age and fairly recent cancer surgery. Sounding very much alive—if sometimes supine and blissed-out—he’s made one of the craziest records of his career.
Haggard’s ’70s and ’80s records were often uneven affairs, with several thousand live versions of “Okie From Muskogee” and tossed-off songs on the order of “Ever-Changing Woman” competing with the good stuff. On the other hand, a ridiculous novelty song such as 1980’s deeply devious “Sky-Bo” (from The Way I Am, one of his more consistent collections) said a lot about his creative process: Haggard plays a hobo with a pilot’s license who flew “some rich folks around” before heading off to Shreveport by way of Phoenix. The song revealed a craftsman whose bad ideas said as much about a country’s sense of loneliness and dislocation as his more celebrated compositions; I Am What I Am plows similar ground, but the songs eschew detail for narrative of the barest sort. He sings as cannily as ever—in fact, he’s altogether too damned canny. Bemused by his own guile, Haggard combines bravado and fake pathos throughout: As he sings on “Bad Actor,” “Secondhand feelings are always a factor/In my starring role as a bad actor.”
Still, there’s plenty of interesting dead space to fill up, and he appears to be going along with the joke of being Merle Haggard, just as he did so effectively in Guy Terrifico. (The film also features great turns by Kris Kristofferson and Alabama songwriter Donnie Fritts.) He sings two numbers that mention mankind’s trips to the moon, with “The Road to My Heart” the keeper: “I wonder if Louis Armstrong played the blues when he stepped out on the moon?” He remembers his youthful days living in a boxcar on “Oil Tanker Train” and high-tails it out of town after stupidly letting a groupie get a glance at the name on his platinum card during “Stranger in the City.” And he sounds more or less engaged on the title track—maybe it’s because he plays guitar on it. “I believe Jesus is God/And a pig is just ham,” he sings. There’s no sense of libertarian overstatement, no liberal-baiting. Haggard delivers character sketches that combine highfalutin concepts with snatches of low comedy—in this, he remains an exemplary country artist. So you’ll have to forgive me: I respect the man’s God-given right to say that all explanations are useless and simply metaphysical, but I also reserve the right to say the hell with it.