Story Behind the Song: ‘Mama Tried’ by Merle Haggard
In the 1960’s, country music fans had some attraction to hearing about prison life in songs from a couple different artists. Those artists seemed to have used the mystique of spending time behind bars to build a persona that sold records.
Of course I’m talking about Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. They’re both gone now, but their legend will live for many years to come, perhaps forever.
For Cash, his time in prison was as a performer coming in to entertain the inmates. He spent some time in jail under lock and key, but never did prison time. I’ll bet thru the years 95 percent or more of the public believed he was a former prison inmate because of the songs he sang.
For Merle Haggard, it was a different story. Serving a sentence of one to fifteen, he spent two years and nine months in San Quentin Prison. After his release, he came out a changed man and never turned to crime again. Instead he became one of the biggest stars in all of country music.
Haggard did a number of prison songs during his career, mainly in the early days. The one that was the biggest was “Mama Tried”.
He wrote the song to tell the true story of how his mother tried to keep him out of trouble. Merle’s father died of a stroke. Merle was only nine at the time. His mother had to go to work and be the sole provider for the family.
Merle told of how his mother had a boy that was more than wild. Merle told how nothing his mom tried could change him. He admitted thru his life that he was glad he got locked up in prison because that’s what it took to change him.
The song “Mama Tried” was written and recorded by Haggard. It was released in July of 1968. The song would spend four weeks at number one and it would be the cornerstone of his career.