Before “Okie From Muskogee” became his signature song and before “If We Make It Through December” became his biggest crossover hit, Merle Haggard’s best-known song was the one where he came clean about his San Quentin past and told the world about growing up the son of a single mom. In 1968, “Mama Tried” cracked Billboard’s country singles charts at the end of July and, remarkably, raced to Number One in just a month. “Mama Tried” topped the charts the week of Aug. 31, 1968, and held the position for four weeks (until another iconic record, Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” bumped Merle’s classic from the top spot the week of Sept. 28). “Mama Tried” has been recorded through the years by everyone from Conway Twitty, the Everly Brothers and Percy Sledge to the Grateful Dead, the Avett Brothers and, on a Haggard tribute album earlier this year, Eli “Paperboy” Reed. But it’s Merle’s original, with its acoustic-electric blend and scooting country-soul rhythm, and with references to trains, prison, a misspent youth, and a mother’s love, that remains definitive.
In this excerpt from the new edition of his musical biography The Running Kind: Listening to Merle Haggard, David Cantwell writes about the song’s big-screen origins and listens closely to one of country music’s most beloved recordings.
Among the songs most closely associated with Merle Haggard today, “Mama Tried” is hands down his most purely autobiographical. Even the song’s one well-known fiction — Merle wasn’t doing “life without parole” — is every bit as much a concession to artistic demands as an embrace of artistic license. “Instead of life in prison I was doing one-to-fifteen years,” he once told Wayne Bledsoe of the Knoxville News Sentinel. “I just couldn’t get that to rhyme.”
“Mama Tried” certainly has that It-Happened-Just-This-Way feel. The romantic triumvirate of rhymes that launches the song (“First thing I remember knowin’ … lonesome whistle blowin’ … a young’un’s dream of growin’”); the in memoriam of its second verse (“dear old Daddy, rest his soul”); the shout-out to a woman who struggled to be both mom and dad to the boy, who saw to it he went to church, who tried to raise him right; even the bit about a 21st birthday behind bars — it’s all Merle, all true, right up to and including his owning up to being such a headstrong fool that no one, not even his mother, could tell him a damn thing.
Ironic, then, that Merle penned this musical memoir on commission for Killers Three, the B-movie in which Merle made his acting debut in 1968. “Just some punks from the peckerwoods out for a little fun,” read advertisements in some newspapers. “Before it was over, 37 men were dead.” Adding to the irony, and then multiplying it by a factor of about a thousand, real-life ex-con Merle Haggard switches sides in the film and portrays a Smokey the Bear–hat-wearing North Carolina state trooper.
This might have gone down as the greatest case of miscasting in Hollywood history if only Killers Three didn’t also star Dick Clark, America’s Oldest Teenager and the movie’s producer, as a pyromaniac who may or may not be gay and who (spoiler alert!) shoots officer Haggard dead in a country diner. An instrumental version of “Mama Tried,” billed as “The Ballad of Killers Three,” plays over the opening credits while another song Merle wrote, “Killers Three Theme,” is dropped between scenes a verse or two at a time to provide exposition or narrate the on-screen action: “He dreamed of California and the new life there would be,” or “Johnny drove hard and fast to make his getaway,” like that.
Back in the real world, or at least back in a Los Angeles recording studio, Merle and producer Ken Nelson created a record with the potential to reach beyond the country audience. Life magazine predicted that the record “could be a Top 40 hit tomorrow if the big-city stations would play it.” And “Mama Tried” was deliberately assembled from clearly pop elements. “I was trying to land somewhere in between Peter, Paul & Mary and Johnny Cash,” Merle told journalist Paul Zollo. The two quick notes that Stranger Norman Hamlet hits to snap the intro closed, then repeats to end the record—the only pedal steel notes on the entire single—were known in the band as the “Batman lick” because they mimicked the urgent hook of the TV show’s theme song: “Bat! Man!”
Merle gave “Mama Tried” lyrics that are a far cry from its reputation as an ideal Mother’s Day radio request. “Mama Tried” isn’t the simple and touching apology, however hard-won, of an older-but-wiser son paying rueful tribute to the ever-loving, long-suffering mama who knew best all along. “Mama Tried” doesn’t sound rueful at all, not with James Burton kicking off the record with a Dobro lick that skips in breathless anticipation toward whatever adventure the open road holds in store, not with Roy Nichols squeezing off electrical sparks that sound like Merle’s once more chasing down a freight train and shouting, “Wait for me.”
Turns out, “Mama Tried” is less an acknowledgment of all the pain and trouble Merle put Flossie through and more a celebration of his own willfulness, his refusal to be broken. “Mama tried. Mama Tried!! MAMA TRIED!!!” After all these years, those indelible ascending shouts — they may speak of regret, but they sing like victory — strike me less like pangs of a guilty conscience and more and more like a boast. Everyone tried to change his mind, to set him straight, but no one could. Not even his mother.
“She tried to raise me right but I refused,” he sings. He appreciates what his mama tried to do, of course. Really, he does. But not one note here says he wouldn’t refuse her again.
Excerpted from The Running Kind: Listening to Merle Haggard by David Cantwell, © 2022, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.