For decades now, Merle Haggard has been pining away for the past. He sang "Are The Good Times Really Over?" in 1981, and years before that, he was celebrating places where squares could still have a ball. In 2010, he's still pining. I Am What I Am, released two weeks after his 73rd birthday and 17 months after he had part of a cancerous lung taken out, opens with him reminiscing on news he's seen come and go. He remembers Neil Armstrong walking on the moon; four songs later, backed by a trumpet, he intentionally confuses Neil with Louis. The album's got plenty of jazz — in "Live and Love Always," a Western Swing duet with his wife Theresa, Merle bends notes right along with the slide trombone. Two songs talk about couples recharging batteries after kids are grown. In "We're Falling In Love Again," Hag's singing gets creaky and, well, haggard, appropriately emphasizing his age.
Mostly, though, it's amazing how much beauty is left in his voice, when so many singers 40 years younger have already forfeited theirs. This is, at very least, the solidest album he's made since his politics seemed to shift left on 2003's under-acclaimed Like Never Before. There's even a good new train track. Three of the best songs come at the end: one where he resents a home-wrecking temptress in the city; then a bilingual border waltz where "early mañana/ I'll smoke what I wanna/ And listen to Mexican bands"; then a spare statement of purpose where Hag believes "Jesus is God/ And a pig is just ham" — just in case you'd thought he'd converted to Judaism, or outgrown his sense of humor, or something.