Album reviews: Merle Haggard's 'I Am What I Am' and Willie Nelson's 'Country Music'
The new albums by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard represent each country veteran’s debut with a new label, but on both discs, that’s where the novelty ends: With Nelson's “Country Music” on Rounder and Haggard's “I Am What I Am” on Vanguard, these grizzled avatars of the late-'60s/early-'70s “outlaw country” movement are self-consciously reasserting their roots-music bona fides following recent forays into other styles. These are traditionally minded efforts from two old-timers who came of age bucking tradition.
To oversee “Country Music,” Nelson recruited T Bone Burnett, who had spent the last few years producing similarly conceived albums by John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello and the duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. As he did on the Grammy-winning Plant-Krauss set, Burnett selected most of the vintage Nashville material, as well as the musicians making up Nelson’s backing band, and as usual, he chose well: “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” are perfectly suited to the frayed edges of Nelson’s voice, while “Pistol Packin’ Mama” and “Drinking Champagne” emphasize the singer’s appealingly playful side.
Throughout the album, Burnett’s players (including guitarist Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale on harmony vocals) cushion Nelson’s singing with warm string-band arrangements that never overpower his understated delivery. If the result seems a little slight, it’s also deeply satisfying.
“I Am What I Am” is less consistent than “Country Music”: Haggard’s writing occasionally lapses into anonymous honky-tonk hokum, and the playing sometimes feels cheap and dashed off. (Haggard’s voice sounds much more weathered than Nelson’s does, as well.) Yet because it’s made up of originals, not covers, it’s also more idiosyncratic; the best songs here — such as “Bad Actor” and “Oil Tanker Train,” the latter featuring his wife, Theresa, on vocals — tell us more about Haggard than Nelson’s do about him.
And they might contain sharper wordplay: In “Mexican Bands” Haggard rhymes mañana with “smoke what I wanna.”
— Mikael Wood
“I Am What I Am”
Two and a half stars (out of four)
Three stars (out of four)