Prison Songs Three / Three-Way: Merle Haggard – “Mama Tried”

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merle haggard

by Walter Price

 

Normally when we research the history and the year a song was released for these Three-Way articles, we come up with some silly songs to contrast the legendary track we’re highlighting. But oddly, or not, back in the year 1968 the popular songs on Country radio were and still are, amazing.

If you had your AM dialed to your fave station back then you were shuffling through your day to the sounds of Conway, Waylon, Wynette, Campbell, Pride, and Jones, to name just a very few. But in this article, we’re celebrating one of the best, and one of the first outlaws, Merle “Poet of the Common Man” Haggard. And the track is “Mama Tried”.

Coinciding with our recent Prison Songs series, this powerful and timeless track was an undeniable choice. A brief background before we get into the three interpretations from three legendary artists.

“Mama Tried” is partially artistic license and largely autobiographical. Written by Haggard in 1957 while serving time in San Quentin prison for attempting to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse and a subsequent escape from jail. The song was an ode to his mother, Flossie Mae, and the trouble he’d caused her over the years. Her dedication to keeping her son on the straight and narrow. A dedication that would prove in vain.

There is one line in the song that, of course, isn’t true, but it does drive the thought of endless isolation home. And this line is the one that brings the most heartache to most listeners, “I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole.”. Followed by the whole point of the song, “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”.

Still so powerful. No one, mostly, wants to hurt the ones who’ve reared us, loved us, tried to teach us right from wrong. But we all wander different paths, and this can end in painful realities. Situations too often thought about when it’s too late.

Over the years, “Mama Tried” has been covered, reimagined, and celebrated by some of the best in the business. I picked three of my faves. Have a listen, and then, call your mother.

 

MERLE HAGGARD

1937 – 2016

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