Merle Haggard released “Mama Tried,” on July 22, 1968. It was the lead single and title track from the album that would drop in October of that year. However, before the album hit shelves, the title track hit the top of the charts. Today, the song is one of Merle’s best-known tracks. Additionally, it has become the unofficial anthem of just about everyone who finds themselves on the wrong side of the law. If you’ve ever known an outlaw – reformed or not- they tend to crank up the volume a little when this song comes on. There’s a good reason for that, too.
Merle Haggard penned the lyrics to the iconic song based on his own life. Before he was a country music icon, Hag found himself doing time in California’s San Quentin State Prison. In fact, he was there in the crowd when Johnny Cash came to play in front of the inmates in 1959. That performance put Haggard’s feet on the path to country stardom.
However, one doesn’t have to do hard time to relate to the lyrics of Merle Haggard’s signature tune. It’s about turning bad despite a mother’s love and best intentions. Just about anyone who has stepped out of line in one way or another can feel these words in their heart. This relatability combined with Hag’s authenticity goes a long way in explaining why the song went to the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart a little over a month after its initial release.
“Mama Tried,” also earned a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame. They bestowed that honor on Merle Haggard in 1999. Two weeks before Haggard passed away, the song was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry for its cultural, historic, or artistic significance.
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Obviously, Merle Haggard wasn’t sentenced to life without parole. Instead, he did three years on a robbery conviction. However, that isn’t really the focal point of the song. The real focus here is the outlaw lamenting the pain he caused his mother by going down the bad road. At the same time, it looks back fondly on the woman who raised him.
Many times, when a child – no matter their age- goes bad, parents tend to blame themselves. In this song, it seems that Merle Haggard wanted to ease his mother’s mind while taking responsibility for his actions.
“Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied / That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.”
This frank discussion of the darker side of outlaw life combined with one of the most recognizable guitar lines in country music history makes Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” a timeless country classic. It’ll continue to explain the remorse felt by those who take the hard road for as long as music touches the souls of humans.
Give your mama a call or hug today if you can. After all, she tried her hardest.