Merle Haggard, "I Am What I Am"
It's not so much that Merle Haggard has established himself as an American gem on his ambitious releases in the past decade; it's that we finally took notice. He's gone from the angry "Okie From Muskogee" to a weathered everyman poet with a Western twang and a California kind of country swing that puts melodic heft behind musings on the human condition. On the new set he sings about seeing "our greatest leaders break people's hearts" and his own shortcomings ("Bad Actor," "How Did You Find Me Here"). The waltzing "Oil Tanker Train" is evocative enough to put listeners right on the tracks, while "Mexican Bands" serves up a guided tour along the Tex-Mex border. On the title track Haggard delivers the hall-of-fame-worthy couplet, "I believe Jesus is God/ And a pig is just a ham." Toward the end of the set, he intones, "I do what I do 'cause I give a damn." We're damn glad he still does.