Behind the Merle Haggard Classic “Mama Tried”

“Mama Tried” is classic honky-tonk Merle, emblematic of the dusty Bakersfield sound that he helped pioneer.

When Merle Haggard was nine years old, his father passed away from a brain hemorrhage. Haggard’s two older siblings, Lowell and Lillian, were in their twenties at the time, which left Merle to be raised solo by his mother, Flossie, at their house in Bakersfield, California. Flossie worked tirelessly as a bookkeeper to try and provide for Merle, but since she was gone for much of each day, Merle turned in to a serious troublemaker. He was arrested multiple times for theft, ran away to Texas at age fourteen, and did time at three different reform schools before finally ended up with a stint in San Quentin prison (where he saw Johnny Cash play and then vowed to change his criminal ways and focus on music).

Despite his hellraising, Merle cared for his mother deeply and cast her in a sympathetic light in one of his greatest songs, the semi-autobiographical “Mama Tried.” “It wasn’t Mama’s fault that I went to prison, she did everything right,” Merle once said. “She was a wonderful mother. You could depend on her. If you’d been gone three weeks and you showed up, she’d fix you the greatest breakfast you ever had.”

Recorded at Capitol Records’ studio in Los Angeles in 1968 and released in July of that year, “Mama Tried” gave Haggard his fifth number-one hit (proceeded by another number-one, “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde”, which topped the charts in February of 1968). Clocking in at just over two minutes, it’s classic honky-tonk Merle, emblematic of the dusty Bakersfield sound that he helped pioneer. And it’s long been a favorite of other artists, covered by Joan Baez, the Everly Brothers and, most notably, the Grateful Dead who performed it more than 300 times, including this rollicking version taken from a show on Mother’s Day, May 8, 1977.

Hear the real thing below and then remember to call your mother.