Perhaps there’s a measure of defiance in the title of Merle Haggard’s 2010 album I Am What I Am, but it’s also a statement of plain fact: almost 50 years into a recording career, there’s no changing the fact that Hag is who is he is, and he’s comfortable in his own skin, broken-in but not worn-out, never pushing too hard but never coasting, either. Sometimes Haggard’s easy touch is too light, slipping into sleepiness, but the striking thing about I Am What I Am is its casual mastery, the subtle shading in his vocal phrasing can make his songwriting appear effortless. And to an extent, it is: Hag’s tending the same fields he has for years, sliding into swaying ballads, stepping it up for a bit of Western swing, tipping his hat toward Mexico, swinging through some Dixieland jazz, a love of railroads and family, spiking his sentimental, nostalgic streak with clear-eyed realism, always blurring the line between a late night in a beer joint and a Sunday afternoon picking on the porch. But like with any of Haggard’s great albums, much of the pleasure lies in the details, whether it’s the sly lyrical turns of phrase in his writing or in the suppleness of his performance, things I Am What I Am has in spades. It’s familiar enough to feel comforting on the first listen, resonant enough to sound better with each subsequent spin; it’s so true to Haggard’s essence that it could stand handsomely as his final album, an understated summation of where he’s been, but it’s made better by having no trace of self-conscious finality -- this wasn’t constructed as a last word, but it’s just a reflection of who Haggard is, which is nothing less than one of the great American singer/songwriters.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine