Merle Haggard

Mama Tried

Song Review by

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.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
No Image 1968
Fightin' Side of Me 1970 King / King Special
The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard [Capitol] 1972 Capitol 2:10
No Image 1976 Capitol
Country U.S.A.: 1968 1989
Various Artists
Time / Life Music
More of the Best 1990 Rhino 2:10
Country Pride [Excelsior] 1991 Excelsior Recordings
Country Pride [CEMA] 1992 EMI-Capitol Special Markets 2:12
Merle Haggard: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 1994 Curb 2:11
#1 Hits 1994 K-Tel Distribution 2:10
Super Hits, Vol. 2 1994 Epic / Sony Music Distribution 2:10
Sing Me Back Home: Hits 1994 Drive Archive 2:11
Hello Country 1994
Various Artists
Drive Archive 2:11
Jailhouse Rock [Sony] 1995
Various Artists
Risky Business / Sony Music Distribution 2:08
20 Hits, Vol. 1 1995 Curb 2:08
The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead 1995
Various Artists
Shanachie 2:10
Greatest Hits [Cema] 1995 EMI-Capitol Special Markets / CEMA Special Markets 2:12
Greatest Hits: Finest Performances 1995 Sun Record Company 2:09
Okie from Muskogee [King Compilation] 1996 King 0:00
Vintage Collections Series 1996 Capitol / EMI Records 2:14
The One & Only 1996 Intercontinental Records 2:12
Country Legends [Intersound] 1996
Various Artists
Intersound 2:14
Down Every Road 1996 Capitol Nashville / Capitol 2:12
Golden Classics: 23 Classic Tracks 1996 Double Play Records 3:05
Country Classics, Vol. 2 1996 Critique Records 2:09
My Best 1997 Simitar Distribution
Misery & Gin 1997 Kingfisher Records 2:09
Super Hits/Super Hits, Vol. 2/Super Hits, Vol. 3 1997 Sony Music Distribution 2:10
No Image 1997
Various Artists
Peter's 2:15
Outlaws & Rebels 1997
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 2:15
Legendary Performer 1997 Boomerang Records / Beacon Records
Golden Country Hits [Box Set] 1997
Various Artists
Peter's 2:15
This Is Merle Haggard 1998 Music Club Records 2:11
Life's Highway 1998
Various Artists
Hip-O / HIPP 2:12
Mega Country, Vol. 1 1998
Various Artists
16 Biggest Hits 1998 Legacy / Epic 2:10
I'm a Lonesome Fugitive [Compilation] 1998 Country Stars 2:11
Twelve #1 Hits, Vol. 1 1999 Platinum Disc 2:09
Back to Back 1999 Masters / Intercontinental Records 2:12
A&E Biography 1999 Capitol / EMI Records 2:11
For the Record: 43 Legendary Hits 1999 BNA 2:12
4 Country Living Legends 1999
Various Artists
Double Play Records 2:10
Classic Country: 1965-1974 1999
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 2:13
Classic Country: 1965-1969 [2 CD 1999] 1999
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 2:13
Now That's Country, Vol. 2 2000
Various Artists
Music Mill 2:11
The Ultimate Collection 2000 Hip-O 2:13
Good Old Country 2000 St. Clair 2:14
Super Hit Set 2000 King 2:11
Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes 2000
Various Artists
CD Double Play / IRC / Intercontinental Records 2:11
Greatest Hits [Legend] 2000 Delta Distribution / Legend 2:10
20 Number One Hits 2000 Varèse Vintage / Varese 2:11
New Light Through Old Windows 2000 7-N 2:12
Oh Boy Classics Presents: Merle Haggard 2000 Oh Boy 2:10
Legendary Kings of Country 2000
Various Artists
MRA / Mastersound 3:01
No Image 2000 Koch
Merle Haggard: 20 Great Hits 2001 Platinum Disc 2:14
Prison 2001 Capitol / EMI Records 2:11
20 Greatest Hits 2002 Capitol / EMI Records 2:11
Super Hits [Haggard/Twitty] 2002 King 2:11
21 Years Of Number 1 Hits 2002 Double Play Records 2:10
Best of Merle Haggard [Columbia] 2002 Columbia River Entertainment Group 3:05
Golden Treasure: Country Legends 2002
Various Artists
Park South Records / Orpheus Records 2:27
David Allan Coe Presents Merle Haggard 2002 Coe Pop Records 2:10
Country Legends 2002 St. Clair 2:13
No Image 2002 Direct Source
Sound of Country 2003
Various Artists
Direct Source 2:11
Country Legend, Vol. 1 2003 Platinum Disc 2:10
Country Legend [2 Disc] 2003 Platinum Disc 2:10
24 at No. 1 2003 Teevee Records 2:11
Momma Tried 2003 Blumountain Records 2:27
The Fightin' Side of Me: 15 #1 Hits 2003 Dualtone Music 2:14
The Collection [Madacy] 2003 Madacy Distribution / Madacy 2:13
Country Gold [Direct Source 2003 Single Disc] 2003
Various Artists
Direct Source 2:10
Hits 2003 K-Tel Distribution 2:10
Country Legend [3 Disc] 2003 Platinum Disc 2:10
Collection [EMI] 2004 EMI Music Distribution 2:13
Platinum & Gold Collection 2004 BMG Heritage 2:12
20 Country Hits 2004
Various Artists
Music Mill 2:12
40 #1 Hits 2004 Capitol / EMI Records 2:12
Signature Series: Bouquet of Songs 2004
Various Artists
Reader's Digest Music 2:11
40 Greatest Hits 2004 Intersound 2:12
Country Gold: 50 Years of Country Hits, 1965-69 2004
Various Artists
BMG Special Products 2:11
David Allan Coe Presents...My Favorite Singers, Vol. 1 2004 Coe Pop Records 2:10
40 Greatest Hits, Vol.1 2004 Intersound 2:12
Sing Me Back Home [RCR/Cbuj Compilation] 2005 CBUJ Distribution 2:12
Legends: Merle Haggard 2005 Direct Source / Direct Source Special 2:10
The Best of Merle Haggard [St. Clair] 2005 St. Clair / Essential Records 2:26
Classic Country Gold 2005
Various Artists
Hip-O 2:13
Greatest Hits Collection 2005 Direct Source 2:11
Mama Tried/Pride in What I Am 2006 Liberty / Capitol 2:14
Billboard #1s: Classic Country 2006
Various Artists
Rhino 2:12
Hag: The Best of Merle Haggard 2006 Capitol 2:11
Sing Me Back Home: Greatest Hits [Golden Stars] 2007 Cargo / Golden Stars 2:11
Definitive Collection 2007 Hip-O 2:11
20 Hits 2007 Kings Road 2:10
Very Best of Merle Haggard [EMI Gold] 2007 EMI 2:13
Hag: The Capitol Recordings 1968-1976 - Concepts, Live & the Strangers 2007 Bear Family Records 2:35
Number One Songs 2008 Curb 2:10
Merle Haggard Collector's Edition 2008 Curb 2:10
Greatest Hits: Limited Edition [Curb] 2008 Curb 2:12
Country Meets Southern Rock 2009
Various Artists
Dead Line Music
The Best of Merle Haggard [Capitol 2009] 2009 Capitol / EMI Records 2:12
The Only Classic Country Collection You'll Ever Need 2010
Various Artists
Shout! Factory 2:55
Sweet Home Alabama: Southern Moon Favourites 2010
Various Artists
Country Roads / ZYX 2:26
The Golden Age of Country [Time-Life] 2011
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 2:10
Icon 2012 MCA Nashville 0:00
The Complete '60s Capitol Singles 2013 Omnivore 2:12
Icon 2 2013 Capitol / Universal Music 2:11
Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Hillbilly Music: 1968 2013
Various Artists
Bear Family Records 2:13