About the song

If you are a fan of country music, you probably know the song “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard and The Strangers. It is one of his most famous and influential songs, and it tells the story of a rebellious son who ends up in prison despite his mother’s efforts to raise him right. But do you know the history behind this song and how it reflects Haggard’s own life? In this blog post, we will explore the origins and impact of “Mama Tried”, which was released in 1968 as the first single and title track from the album of the same name.

Merle Haggard was born in 1937 in California, during the Great Depression. His father died when he was nine, and his mother worked as a bookkeeper to support the family. Haggard grew up in a converted railroad boxcar and developed a love for music at an early age. He learned to play guitar and was influenced by country, blues, jazz, and folk artists. He also had a troubled adolescence, running away from home several times and getting involved in petty crimes. He was sent to juvenile detention centers and reform schools, but he always escaped or got expelled.

In 1957, when he was 20 years old, he was arrested for attempting to rob a roadhouse. He was sentenced to one to fifteen years in San Quentin State Prison. There, he witnessed the execution of Caryl Chessman, a notorious rapist and kidnapper, who inspired him to turn his life around. He also saw Johnny Cash perform at the prison, which motivated him to pursue a career in music. He earned his high school equivalency diploma and joined the prison band. He was paroled in 1960 after serving three years.

After his release, Haggard worked as a manual laborer and played music in local bars and clubs. He married his first wife, Leona Hobbs, with whom he had four children. He also started writing songs and recording demos. He signed with Tally Records, an independent label run by Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley. His first single, “Sing a Sad Song”, was released in 1964 and became a minor hit. He then moved to Capitol Records, where he met producer Ken Nelson and guitarist Roy Nichols, who became his longtime collaborators.

Haggard’s career took off in the mid-1960s, as he developed his distinctive style of country music that blended elements of honky tonk, Bakersfield sound, Western swing, and folk. He also created his backing band, The Strangers, which featured talented musicians such as Nichols, steel guitarist Norm Hamlet, bassist Chuck Berghofer, drummer Eddie Burris, and pianist Glen D. Hardin. He scored several number one hits on the Billboard country charts, such as “The Fugitive”, “Branded Man”, “Sing Me Back Home”, “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde”, and “Okie from Muskogee”.

“Mama Tried” was written by Haggard in 1968 as a tribute to his mother, Flossie Mae Haggard, who died in 1994. He said that he wanted to express his gratitude and remorse for all the pain he caused her by being incarcerated. He also said that he exaggerated some details in the song for dramatic effect, such as claiming that he turned 21 in prison doing life without parole (he actually turned 23 when he was paroled). He said that he wrote the song in about 20 minutes on the back of an envelope.

The song was recorded on May 9, 1968 at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, California. It featured Haggard on vocals and guitar, Nichols on lead guitar, Hamlet on steel guitar, Berghofer on bass, Burris on drums, Hardin on piano, Bonnie Owens on harmony vocals, and Don Markham on saxophone. The song has a simple structure of three verses and a chorus, with a key change from E major to F major before the last verse. The song showcases Haggard’s expressive voice and Nichols’ twangy guitar licks.

The song was released in July 1968 as the first single and title track from the album Mama Tried. It reached number one on both the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart and the Canadian RPM Country Tracks chart in August. It spent four weeks at the top spot and became Haggard’s biggest hit to that time. It also crossed over to the pop charts, peaking at number 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The song received critical acclaim and recognition from the music industry. It won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 for its historical significance. It was also selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2016 for its cultural, artistic, and historical value. It was ranked at number 376 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2021. It has been covered by many artists, such as The Grateful Dead, The Everly Brothers, Joan Baez, The Seldom Scene, and Reba McEntire.

“Mama Tried” is a classic country song that showcases Merle Haggard’s songwriting talent and personal story. It is a song that resonates with many people who have faced hardships and regrets in their lives. It is also a song that honors the love and sacrifice of mothers who try their best to raise their children. It is a song that has stood the test of time and remains one of Haggard’s most beloved and influential songs.