Merle Haggard was sitting in the audience for three of Johnny Cash’s infamous shows at San Quentin. Merle dominated the charts in the 70’s and 80’s and if you ask people who might know about such things, Merle’s life was the basis for the 1983 Academy Award-winning film Tender Mercies starring Robert Duval. Somewhere in the mid-80’s/early-90’s Nashville started to change, and since Merle wouldn’t, he, like Johnny Cash, sort of got swept aside. However, much like Cash (albeit to a lesser degree), Merle has experienced a comeback of sorts here in the 2000s.
In sports, certain players obtain enough respect and pop culture status to be know by their first names. If I say “Walter”, “Lawrence” or “Michael”, odds are you’ll say Payton, Taylor and Jordan, regardless of how closely you follow sports. The musical equivalent of that is acceptance of what you are. Take Lucero for instance, they release album after great album to critical acclaim but ultimately the critics ask for more. “How many songs can he write about the one that got away?” “Will Lucero ever shake their sound up?”, and so on. On the other hand, Merle Haggard can release an album in 2010 that could have just as easily come out in 1970 or 1980 and it’s not only accepted, it’s taken on its own merits instead of being compared to whatever preteen boy loving, pure American blonde that Nashville happens to be exploiting at the moment.
Merle Haggard titled his 2010 release I Am What I Am, and by doing so made any review that went beyond those 5 words seem self-indulgent.