Classic Tracks: Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried"

May 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Gary Eskow


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Slicked up and properly packaged, many of today's country music stars lack the root experiences that influenced George Jones, Waylon Jennings and other great talents who defined country and western in the middle years of the 20th century. Even among this earlier crew, however, Merle Haggard stands on separate ground.


MP3 of "Mama Tried"

His well-documented bio includes the loss of his father at an early age, a slide into juvenile delinquency and, ultimately, a series of adult incarcerations that informed Haggard's writing and added a mournful inflection to his singing. Best known in non-country music circles for his 1969 hit, “Okie From Muskogee,” a humorous jibe at knee-jerk leftists, Haggard scored his fifth Number One hit on Billboard's country chart with “Mama Tried,” which was released a year earlier and, as much as any song, helped define his public persona.

“Mama Tried” was originally written for a low-budget Bonnie and Clyde-type movie called Killers Three, produced by Dick Clark. The lyrics are from the perspective of a troubled adult who regrets the path he's taken in life, ignoring the sage advice of his dear mother, who had to raise her son without a father. It's not exactly Haggard's own story, but it's close, and it rings with the wisdom of truth: “And I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole/No one could steer me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried/Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied/That leaves only me to blame, 'cause Mama tried.” The music is Bakersfield twang — spare, direct, right on the money.

Recovering from lung surgery a few months ago, Haggard was in fine form in a spirited conversation during which he discussed his memories of recording “Mama Tried” and other topics. In conversation — as in song — it's best to just let Merle Haggard do the talkin':

“[Western swing pioneer] Bob Wills was a big influence, absolutely. When I was a boy, radio was in its prime. There was no television, and going to a movie was a big deal. So radio was the main source of music and entertainment of all kinds. Bob Wills was all over the radio, all day. There was a 100-kilowatt station that broadcast from Rosarita Beach, in Baja, Mexico, just across the border from where my family lived in Southern California. I used to catch their 7 p.m. Bob Wills show with my dad, and then listen to The Lone Ranger. Bob is still the best performer I ever heard or saw.

“My mother was a devout Christian, and she raised me the same way. She was left to widow when I was 9, and there was nobody in the house but her and I, so I felt over-obligated to her. I also felt that she had so much work to do to try and raise me, it probably caused me to leave home early. My mother was the finest lady in the world. She died in 1985.

“I think going to prison did make me a better man; in fact, I'm sure it did, yes. I was a young guy when I went there, thought I was bullet-proof tough. Maybe I was, I don't know — nobody ever took anything away from me on the inside. I learned a lot about the meaning of honesty in prison. You can't tell somebody something in prison and not do it because they'll see you the next day — bad dealings on a carton of cigarettes will cost you your life.

“There was that whole Bakersfield sound thing, a reaction against the Nashville sound that was getting so big and lush, but remember, it was only 80 miles from Bakersfield to Capitol Records Studio [in Hollywood] where we recorded ‘Mama Tried.’ The live echo chamber they had — still have — was a big part of the Bakersfield sound.

“We worked in both studios there — actually recorded ‘Mama’ in Studio A, the larger room. We had no preference; both were great studios, and each one had access to the echo chambers. Things were done much differently back then. You had three hours to record two or three songs. I'd meet with The Strangers, my band, in a coffee shop at 9 o'clock to discuss the arrangements; I sort of hummed the songs to them in the shop.

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