Merle Haggard – Mama Tried

Merle Haggard wrote this song while serving time in San Quentin prison for robbery. The song is based on his life, and how his mother tried to help him but couldn’t… This song came out in 1968 and peaked at #1 in the Country Charts in 1968.

The man had 38 number one hits, 71 top ten hits, and 101 songs in the top 100 in the country charts. Merle is one of my favorite country artists. If only the new ones would listen and learn.

This song has been covered by a wide range of artists, including the Everly Brothers and the Grateful Dead.

From Songfacts

The song is largely autobiographical; Haggard’s father died when he was nine years old, and his mother, a devout member of the Church of Christ, tried to keep him on the straight and narrow with a strict upbringing based on her conservative values. This didn’t sit well with Haggard, who said he was an “incorrigible” child and constantly rebelling against her (“Despite all my Sunday learning, towards the bad I kept on turning”).

He was always hopping on freight trains (“The first thing I remember knowing was a lonesome whistle blowing”), an early indicator of his itinerant outlaw personality. He got into trouble for offenses like shoplifting and writing bad checks. Stints in reform school didn’t help, and in 1957 he landed in prison for burglary, where he spent his 21st birthday.

In this song, Haggard takes full responsibility for his choices and takes pity on his mother, who did the best she could (“No one could steer me right but Mama tried”).

Mama Tried

The first thing I remember knowing,
Was a lonesome whistle blowing,
And a young un’s dream of growing up to ride,
On a freight train leaving town,
Not knowing where I’m bound,
And no one could change my mind but Mama tried
One and only rebel child,
From a family, meek and mild,
My Mama seemed to know what lay in store
Despite my Sunday learning,
Towards the bad, I kept turning
‘Til Mama couldn’t hold me anymore

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

Dear old Daddy, rest his soul,
Left my Mom a heavy load,
She tried so very hard to fill his shoes
Working hours without rest,
Wanted me to have the best
She tried to raise me right but I refused

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

Author: badfinger20 (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

34 thoughts on “Merle Haggard – Mama Tried”

      1. No I can’t imagine… their music is a little too slow-paced for me and they always love to drag it out. Who wants to drag a song about prison out? Yes, Merle is the Real Deal.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yea their live stuff can go on and on…
        Country is so different than rock… I once saw Merle open up for Clint Black in the 90s…that I couldn’t grasp…that would be like the Stones opening up for Green Day.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I see country musicians being one big family, at least the old school ones. I could be wrong. Have you heard of a group called, 500 Miles to Memphis? I’m heading out for lunch out of town here in a minute so don’t look in the spam folder too much hoping to see a response til later 😉


      4. The older ones are like family but it’s the people who run it that ruins it for me. If you are older you don’t get heard much. Hope you have a good lunch!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Thanks Max, it was tasty (veggie quiche and delicious coffee, YUM). I’ve stopped using milk and non-dairy creamer at home for coffee and use unsweetened almond milk instead. To have coffee with real half-and-half in it is a treat.


      6. Sounds good except the coffee… my whole family loves it but I never did…I know I’m a freak lol.
        I’ve tried but never have liked it

        Liked by 1 person

      7. You know I use to drink tea… I still do but not as much. You won’t believe it but I did away with caffeine for a year… I had more energy every day.
        I read about it and it’s true… the first 3 days I was useless… then I felt great

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Went on vacation and drank some coke and other drinks with it like an idiot. I wanna do it again but I would have to start on a long weekend… cause like I said… those three days you deal with fatigue and headaches

        Liked by 2 people

  1. I have a special affinity for Merle Haggard. He was an Oklahoman (Okie) as are my mother’s people. He was reared in the Church of Christ as I was (and still am). He had a serious rebellious streak a mile wide and I have a much less dramatic one. He wrote from a place of authenticity, a place that I know all too well, if only from the passenger window. This is one of my favorite Haggard songs. I also love the rebellious, joyful, Blues/Jazz improv on I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was raised in the same Church as you and still am… His songs transcended country… I can’t write it better than you just did… but the authenticity is why I like him so much…it comes through his songs.
      Working Man Blues is one of my favorites of his…


  2. Ha! How about that…What congregation do you attend? I’m in between congregations now and haven’t been going like I should. I’ve been tentatively attending Rural Hill Church of Christ in Antioch and will probably place membership there. It is a very racially diverse congregation. I like that.
    Yes, Working Man Blues, If Were Not Back in Love by Monday, Chase You Round the Room Tonight–all spectacular tunes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Big Marrowbone Church of Christ… We have all of 14-20 people on Sundays and around 9 on Wednesdays… I went to it as a kid and we tried it in 2012 after not going in years…. and have been there ever since.
      It’s older people though…we are some of the “young” ones lol.
      My dad was a Merle Haggard fan and I remember him non stop…


      1. Yes, my old congregation, Pleasant Hill, is like that. We sold our building and a new on is in the works but I don’t know if it’ll ever get built. I was a faithful member for over 20 years but I’ve had to move on. I need more engagement.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s plus and minuses with a small congregations. It does get stale at times. We have choices because you cannot throw a rock in our county without hitting a church…but over all have been happy there.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Merle’s my favorite country artist and this is one of his many great songs. Two of my favorite country artists-were married to the same woman at one point or another- he and Buck Owens were married to Bonnie Owens. I was lucky enough to see both Buck and Merle in concert.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You were very fortunate to see them both…I forgot about them being married to the same woman…
      I knew he was successful but 101 songs in the top 100!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Merle pretty much worked to the end. I think Buck did too- he died shortly after playing his last concert. I agree with you- its too bad most of today’s so called country artists haven’t sat down and studied Merle- Buck- Johnny Cash- Hank- Ole George Jones…instead of James Taylor and Kiss.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Lynyrd Skynyrd also… their name comes up in country constantly… and it’s not country… Garth really put a monkey wrench in it all making it about the show… and rock/southern pop songs


      3. although there are worse artists than Garth- he is at the bottom of my list… thought that was the nicest way i could put it..

        Liked by 1 person

  4. My dad liked that style country when I was real young… Merle, Johnny, Patsy, Conway…I hated it back then but have come to like it quite a lot. I was lucky when little, my Mom liked Beatles & some pop, my Dad was eclectic…country, opera, some pop (he loved Seals & Crofts, Abba, for example) so I was exposed to an array of genres when under 5 or6.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a good variety… my mom was Ray Charles and Elvis… I started with the Monkees from a cousin and then graduated to the Beatles…
      and the Osmonds from my sister but that didn’t stick than goodness

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A version well worth checking out is by Johnny Trouble – a German band featuring John Bluth as the singer, complete with the “S’s” sounding like “Z’s”. Then again, we wonder what we’d sound like if we sang in German!.

    Liked by 1 person

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