Story Behind A Song: Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried.”
“Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard
As told to PAUL ZOLLO
I remember writing the first line – “First thing I remember knowing” — and then it all came fast. Almost wrote itself. It was so well describing my life that I felt maybe I was too close to it to realize it was good. It sounded too easy. I wrote it on the bottom bunk of a bus.
My mother was left alone when my father died, and she had a good education but had never been able to use it, never been out in the world. She didn’t know how to drive. She rode a city bus for 27 years and was a bookkeeper at a meat company. And put up with me. I got in trouble a lot. Had too much energy. I wanted to know things. I loved those Jimmie Rodgers songs about riding freight trains, and I wanted to do it. So I did it. You were supposed to go to school – they had a truancy law. That’s where my problems started. When I was 13 years old I thought I was grown. So I got in trouble, and they put me in juvenile hall, and I didn’t like juvenile hall so I broke out, stole cars to get away, and one thing led to another. By the time I was 20 years old, I was in San Quentin. And “Mama Tried” is probably a child of all that. The songs says I’m the “one and old rebel child.” I did have two older siblings, but they were excellent citizens, never went to jail. I was the one and only rebel.
Mama was an excellent mother. She was a devout Christian, went to church twice a week. Walked to church. I was raised in that atmosphere, and Mama had her hands full with me. My daddy died when I was 9. I don’t suppose I’ve ever gotten over it. He was a good father. There aren’t a lot of good daddies around. He was a good one.
First time I ran away from home I was 11. Wasn’t running away from a bad home, I was running towards an adventure.
It was an all different world then. In every way. Gas was 15 cents a gallon. Cigarettes were 17 cents a pack. There weren’t any highways, just two-lane roads. And the roads ended at the edge of town, so if you didn’t ride the railroad, or have something shipped in, you didn’t get it. It was a spawning ground for a country song.
It is true, as in the song, that I was in prison when I was 21. I didn’t get life without parole, though, that’s the only line that isn’t factual. I didn’t write any songs in prison that were worth recording. I wrote “Mama Tried” after I got out. It wasn’t Mama’s fault that I went to prison. She did everything right. She was a wonderful mother. Didn’t drink, didn’t smoke. 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.
She was a shy person. When I played her the song, she said the ladies at church would razz her about it. I told her I wanted to buy her a Lincoln with my first royalty payment. She said, “The ladies in church will make fun of me if you get me a Lincoln. I want a Dodge Dart.”
We recorded it in 1968 at Capitol in Hollywood. Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen produced. We did a good job; that record still sounds unique. It starts with James Burton on a dobro, finger-picking. I was trying to land somewhere inbetween Peter, Paul & Mary and Johnny Cash. So we started with folky guitar, and a lot of vocal harmony sung by Bonnie Owens and Glen Campbell. Glen played rhythm guitar and sang a tenor harmony.
Everything was done in one take, singing live in the studio with the band. I loved being there. I think I can say, without a doubt, Capitol Records was the premiere recording studio in the world. It has a physical echo chamber that sounds great. All the great voices you can think of, from Nat Cole to Linda Ronstadt, recorded there, using that echo.
It was a morning session. They were very prompt and regimental about that studio. You went in at 10, you had to be out of there by 1, cause someone else was coming in. We’d all meet up in a coffee shop down the street there and prepare our recording. Then drive over our amps and guitars, run in there and set up, and record three number one records in three hours.
It’s my arrangement. I told James [Burton] to try the fingerpicking to bring us into the tempo. We’d get the best musicians there were. James Burton was the best guitarist, so we go Burton. Glen Campbell was part of the group, and Jimmy Gordon on drums. Jerry Ward on electric bass. Norman Hamlet on steel guitar.
The song is short – 2:16. In those days we had to make records under three minutes for radio. And it had a little Batman lick on it.
That song – and that record – seems to me to have always been there.