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Stagecoach: Merle Haggard says new album is ‘more from the heart’

A few hours before his performance on Saturday, Merle Haggard relaxed on his tour bus, which had just snailed its way through the throng of cars being funneled into the parking lots surrounding the Empire Polo Field. Choosing his words carefully, and not wasting one, he spoke about his new album, “I Am What I Am,” a gentle collection of homespun songs.

“It’s pretty personal,” Haggard, 73, said softly, sitting at a small table at the back of his bus, while other members of his entourage hung out in the front — joined by Bobby Bare, who’d just finished his own set a few minutes before.

“There’s not a lot of politics,” said Haggard, dressed in a comfortable-looking old New York Athletics jersey. “I guess it’s a little more from the heart than the last few albums.”

There’s a sweetly reflective remembrance about growing up in Bakersfield, “Oil Tanker Train”; a song about his home in Northern California, “Down at the End of the Road”; and a bittersweet observation that love is “Pretty When It’s New.”

The one exception to the general tone of songs of the heart and hearth is “I’ve Seen It Go Away,” the new album’s leadoff track. Without throwing barbs, he gently but sadly notes many of the things he’s observed that represent the best of what defines America to its citizens and the rest of the world — and how over time “I’ve seen it go away.”

Is the man so famously “proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” getting disillusioned with the land he’s loved for so long?

“Some people might say that,” he said matter-of-factly. “Maybe I am,” he added with a little chuckle. “But I think there are some people who are going to agree with it too. I think more people have started to turn our direction in the last couple of months, so I think it sounds right up to date.”

Despite an almost complete absence of surface fireworks, the album is building toward what his spokeswoman says should be his biggest first-week sales in nearly a quarter-century.

“Sometimes you try to ‘prognose’,” Haggard said with a wry smile, “but you never can predict what’s going to happen.”

randy.lewis@latimes.com


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