On this day, May 9, Merle Haggard and the Strangers recorded Merle’s iconic song “Mama Tried” at the Capitol Recording Studios in Hollywood, 1968.
This song is rich with moral meaning, without at all sounding preachy. The character, drawn from Haggard’s own experience though not identical to it, conveys his sadness at the fact that he’s failed to live up to his raisin’ and, because of crimes he’s committed, is now stuck in prison for the rest of his life. It’s a common trend to blame your parents for your sins, but in his lamentations, Haggard’s character praises his mother and takes all of the blame upon himself.
The lyrics also suggest the irreplaceableness of fathers. The character doesn’t blame “Dear old Daddy,” who died when he was young, leaving “my mom a heavy load. / She tried so very hard to fill his shoes.” Sons need both parents—male and female authorities of blood, or else of full adoption—or things will likely go badly. Yet man is a moral agent, responsible for his own actions. “That leaves only me to blame, ’cause Mama tried.”
The music is the pure Bakersfield sound, created by Buck Owens in that California city of Okie and Arkie immigrants who had fled the Dust Bowl and poverty. The Fender Telecaster of the great Roy Nichols features prominently in “Mama Tried,” with its unmistakeable melancholy bends downward. It’s overlaid onto a folky dobro featuring the fingerpicking of the great James Burton (“I was trying to land somewhere inbetween Peter, Paul & Mary and Johnny Cash,” said the Hag), with Glen Campbell and Bonnie Owens on BGVs. For Country traditionalists, this represents an embarrassment of riches.
The recording was produced by Ken Nelson, the Capitol man known for working with the Bakersfield Sound. It received a Grammy and is enshrined in the National Recording Registry. The single was released on July 22 of that year, and spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Country chart.
The song is likely Haggard’s signature song, with “Okie From Muskogee” being its only competition. In 1957, Johnny Cash gave us a window into the unrepentant and dark mind of a murderer with “Folsom Prison Blues,” where the prisoner hangs his head and cries because he’s incarcerated and missing out on life’s experiences. Over ten years later, Haggard answers with a picture of contrition, born of his own experience, in “Mama Tried.”