When Merle Haggard sang the stellar ‘I Am What I Am’ on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’
Late country music extraordinaire Merle Haggard made a rare appearance on late night television when he stopped by The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to support I Am What I Am on February 8, 2011. Making his third and final appearance on the pre-eminent NBC talk show — no more late night appearances on any network were forthcoming besides an interview on PBS’s Tavis Smiley later that year— Haggard performed the album’s title cut.
In a staggering six decade recording career, the songwriter notched 100 songs on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart. Of those, 71 raced into the Top 10, while 38 ultimately hit No. 1. “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “If We Make It Through December,” “Ramblin’ Fever,” “Are the Good Times Really Over,” and plenty of others have secured a solid place in country music heritage for the revered singer whose “struggling” guitar prowess kept longtime backing band the Strangers on their toes.
Dressed in a black pinstripe suit and corresponding Stetson, at the time the hitmaker was still touring incessantly after effective surgery in November 2008 for non-small cell lung cancer. A scruffy, salt-and-pepper beard masked few of the hard earned lines etched in Haggard’s face. He had an aura of coming from the wrong side of the tracks — perhaps he was too real for Leno’s celebrity-centered chat fest.
“I Am What I Am,” written by Haggard, is a sequel of sorts to “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” and “The Way I Am.” The song is a straight-forward declaration reflecting life’s final chapter. A gentle ballad with slight jazz overtones, the song makes no concession to modern pop and country flavors of the week.
Most songwriters lose their touch or depend on outside writers, but with autobiographical lines such as “I believe Jesus is God, and a pig is just ham, and I’m just a seeker, and I’m just a sinner, and I am what I am,” Hag matched the best of his commercial heyday on Capitol Records.
Although his voice was weathered after years of being on the road and living high on the hog during the ’70s and most of the ’80s, when you hear his voice, it is unmistakably Hag. He may have sounded resigned, but whenever he sang the song’s title, his trademark defiance was boiling over.
Sporting his omnipresent Fender Merle Haggard Signature Telecaster electric guitar in sunburst finish, Haggard was on particularly fine form, playing several understated licks and letting youngest child Ben take the brief lead near the song’s finale. Fifth wife and “How Did You Find Me Here” co-writer Theresa Haggard supplied background vocals.
Leno rightly said it was an honor to have Haggard on his show as he removed his black cowboy hat to acknowledge the thunderous applause. In a perfect world, the country icon should have been allotted an interview segment and second musical number.
Haggard’s Tonight Show performance proved he was undeniably still in the game in the five years leading up to his April 6, 2016, death from a recurring bout of pneumonia — the same day as his 79th birthday which Haggard had prophetically told close intimates would happen. Another lyric from “I Am What I Am” goes, “I do what I do, ’cause I do give a damn.” And he did.
Before you depart, consider visiting a fascinating, definitely freewheeling conversation with the “I’m Always on a Mountain When I Fall” balladeer entitled “Still Holding His Mud: A Day in the Life of “Struggling” Guitarist Merle Haggard.”
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