Merle Haggard scores highest solo bow in 25 years

Fri May 7, 2010 7:14pm EDT

NASHVILLE (Billboard) - After five decades in the music business, Merle Haggard has added another milestone to his legendary career.

The singer-songwriter's first Vanguard Records album, "I Am What I Am," entered Billboard's Top Country Albums chart at No. 18 -- marking his highest solo debut in more than 25 years.

"I record as I write," the 73-year-old icon says of his aptly titled album. "I've got the studio and the band here, so when something good comes to my heart, we'll go put it down." Haggard recorded the 12-song collection with longtime band the Strangers at his Shade Tree Manor studio in Nashville. He also enlisted guest musicians Reggie Young, Rob Ickes and Bob Dylan's drummer, George Receli.

"I Am What I Am" is filled with the kind of no-holds-barred observations on life and love that are Haggard hallmarks. He reflects on changes in American culture in such pointed tunes as "I've Seen It All Go Away," waxes nostalgic about his California childhood on "Oil Tanker Train" and duets with wife Theresa on "Live and Love Always."

Haggard, who survived a 2008 bout with lung cancer, has been supporting the album with an extensive cross-country tour. Kicked off with an April 28 date in Eugene, Oregon, the singer's trek will take him through a July 25 performance in Meridian, Mississippi.

His promotional itinerary included an April 24 gig at the Stagecoach festival in Indio, California, that was broadcast live internationally by Sirius XM Radio's Country Outlaw channel with repeat broadcasts May 1-2. Haggard's show was the only one broadcast from the festival, which included performances by Keith Urban, Sugarland, Toby Keith and Brooks & Dunn.

"That brought in a radio component without there being a traditional single moving up the charts," Vanguard vice president of marketing and A&R development Stephen Brower says. Though the label isn't promoting a single, secondary country and Americana stations are playing various tracks. The album debuted at No. 20 on the Americana chart.

Brower also credits street-date press for building further awareness, including interviews with NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," "CBS Sunday Morning," the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

"We supported that with a major emphasis on the digital marketplace," Brower adds, "working with such online sites as No Depression, American Songwriter, Paste and Filter to offer a free download (of the song "How Did You Find Me Here"). That really helped spread the word." Additionally, both Yahoo and NPR.org streamed the album, while iTunes prominently featured Haggard on its country page.

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