Coming down squarely on the “nature” side of the nature vs. nurture debate, Merle Haggard’s timeless classic “Mama Tried” is a semi-autobiographical apology to his mother for his behavior as a young man, which culminated in a stint in San Quentin for armed robbery.
A stint that was eventually wiped away in 1972 when the Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, gave him a full and unconditional pardon, pretty much for writing songs as great as “Mama Tried.”
With a gorgeously-picked guitar providing cover for a lead guitar crying his mama’s tears, Haggard sings about basically being bad from birth, no matter what his mother did. All of which leads to an indelible chorus:
I turned twenty-one in prison
Doing life without parole
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
With Bonnie Owen chiming in and out on harmonies against Haggard’s typically crystal-clear vocal, the chorus “Mama Tried” is sparse, simple and powerful, centering around the genius repetition of “mama tried, mama tried” at the end of one line followed by “Mama tried” to start the the next.
If “Mama Tried” isn’t Merle Haggard’s signature song, it’s pretty damn close, topping the U.S. country charts and was instantly covered by other folk and country artists, as well rock bands with a foot in country like The Grateful Dead and the Old 97s.
“Mama Tried” performed live
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