Call Merle Haggard a renegade, an outlaw, or any of the other clichés that have been trotted out to describe the man and his music; the bottom line is, he lived what he wrote. And there are few of his songs as autobiographical as "Mama Tried." Raised in a boxcar that his father converted into a home while working for the Santa Fe Railroad, Haggard was in and out of juvenile detention halls and then later prison for a series of petty crimes while trying to survive (he was granted a full pardon in 1972 by Ronald Reagan, then governor of California). From a proud Oklahoma family that was one of thousands to migrate to California during the Great Depression, Haggard's mother had been the first to send her rebellious young son to juvenile centers for a little discipline. And, as the song notes, Haggard has nothing but sympathy for her: "One and only railroad child, from a family meek and mild/Mama seemed to know what lay in store/In spite of all my Sunday learning towards the bad I kept on turning/Mama couldn't hold me any more/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." Though the song is not fully autobiographical (Haggard was not an only child and was never doing "life without parole"), the narrator's account comes very close to the facts of Haggard's own life. "I don't know what I'd have done with me if I had been the parent," Haggard was quoted talking about the song in Peter Guralnick's book Lost Highway (1979). "I was a child that needed two parents and there was a period that came up that my mother just couldn't handle. My dad wasn't there and my older brother tried to step in and of course I resented that. It just got all confused and messed up. Mama certainly did try." "Mama Tried" was first released as a single in 1967, rising to number one on the country charts, and later that year was part of an LP compilation called Branded Man/I Threw Away the Rose. The music and driving approach of the song seem to favor Haggard's hard, honky tonk country roots over his Western swing influences. The impact of his mentor, Lefty Frizell, is, as always, present in the lilting croon of Haggard's voice. The hard-boiled depiction of a rougher side of life takes Hank Williams' influence to an even more unflinching extreme. This Bakersfield, common-man brand of subject matter was in direct contrast to the smoother, pop-flavored love and cheating songs coming out of countrypolitan-era Nashville; the portrayal of the misunderstood prisoner, the "lonesome fugitive" -- to coin a phrase from another Haggard song -- is more in line with older county-folk and blues traditions. And "Mama Tried" even has a bit of a folk flourish -- a fingerpicked classical guitar arpeggio -- that opens and closes the song. It would seem a nod toward the folk revival of the '60s, but the lines between traditional music forms -- country, folk, blues, jazz -- have always been satisfyingly blurred in Haggard's hands. Haggard's narrator seems to realize the mistakes of his foolish ways, testifying with the zeal of a convert; he really revs up his vocals -- supported by a harmony part -- on the repeated chorus lines, "Mama tried, Mama tried/Mama tried to raise me." It is an emotional, ascending musical hook, an effective stagger that is comparable to Roger Daltry's famous stuttering in "My Generation." The Everly Brothers accented the folk elements of the song on their 1968 Roots LP, sounding more like their protégés, Simon & Garfunkel, than themselves, but nevertheless using their stellar harmonies to solidify their relevance to the then-burgeoning country-rock trend. The song has become a country standard, but the most famous cover of "Mama Tried" would have to be the Grateful Dead's via their many live recordings of this concert staple. Debuting on Grateful Dead (a.k.a. Skull and Roses) (1971), the band plays it fairly straight, with Bob Weir handling the lead vocals while longtime country music fan Jerry Garcia provides harmonies and muted country picking. They twist the beat around a little on the chorus, ironing out the chugging snare drumbeat for a straighter feel, dramatically reentering with the original rhythm for the second half of the chorus.