WATCH: Willie Nelson Brings Out Toby Keith and Merle Haggard for ‘Mama Tried’ Performance in 2004

by Jon D. B.

Check out this fantastic and rare footage of Willie Nelson performing ‘Mama Tried’ with Toby Keith & the song’s legendary writer, Merle Haggard.

You’d be hard-pressed to conjure a more iconic trio of country stars. Footage of Willie Nelson‘s Willie Nelson Special (2004) has resurfaced, and within we’re treated to an incredible performance. The song? Merle Haggard‘s timeless ‘Mama Tried’.

The clip begins with Nelson introducing fellow icons Toby Keith and Merle Haggard. Nelson clarifies that Haggard’s a huge influence on both his own and Keith’s music, as well as countless others. With that said, they head into a phenomenal performance together of Haggard’s hit. Hearing the baritone vocals of Haggard & Keith harmonize for the entire song is the stuff country music legends are made of.

Merle Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried’ is “Autobiographical”

Interestingly enough, ‘Mama Tried’ is all about Merle Haggard’s own personal struggles. According to Songfacts, “Haggard wrote this song while serving time in San Quentin prison for robbery. The song is based on his life, and how his mother tried to help him but couldn’t.”

Furthermore, Songfacts clarifies that “the song is largely autobiographical.” According to their source, “Haggard’s father died when he was nine years old, and his mother, a devout member of the Church of Christ, tried to keep him on the straight and narrow with a strict upbringing based on her conservative values.”

This, however, “didn’t sit well with Haggard, who says he was an “incorrigible” child and constantly rebelling against her.” This can be heard in the song’s lyrics: despite all my Sunday learning, towards the bad I kept on turning.

Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Merle Haggard Perform ‘Mama Tried’ in Los Angeles, 2004

Haggard truly poured his entire existence into ‘Mama Tried’. As a young man, “he was always hopping on freight trains,” Songfacts adds. We hear this in the lyrics: the first thing I remember knowing was a lonesome whistle blowing. In addition, his “outlaw personality” got Haggard into deep legal trouble for the remainder of his youth. His offenses include “shoplifting and writing bad checks.” As a result, the legend went to reform school. It didn’t help, however. In 1957, Haggard wound up in prison for burglary. This is where he spent his 21st birthday – just like the song describes.

In the end, Haggard takes full responsibility for his actions through ‘Mama Tried’s lyrics. Within, he fully takes pity for his mother, penning her a love letter through the song for all she did for him.

Willie Nelson Special , Los Angeles, 2004 – Mama Tried (Live (2004/Wiltern Theatre, Los Angeles))


For more throwbacks courtesy of Willie Nelson, check out his Grand Ole Opry debut in Nashville almost 60 years ago.