Thursday, June 30, 2011

June 30: Merle Haggard, "Mama Tried"

Artist: Merle Haggard
Song: "Mama Tried"
Album: Mama Tried
Year: 1968

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While honesty and authenticity are certainly characteristic that nearly every artist in every genre strives to place into their music, it is perhaps no more vital an element than within the realm of country music.  Without this essential aspect, such a song will surely fall short, as it is as much the intent and truth behind the vocals as it is the tone with which they are performed.  Though this does not require the songs to always be of a serious nature, within the world of country music, a solid feeling that there is nothing disingenuous about the overall song cannot be understated.  Among the scores of artists who made a career out of telling their own story, few did so with the brutal honesty and moving sounds as one finds in the music of Merle Haggard.  Standing as one of the most important figures in the entire history of country music, along with Buck Owens, Haggard was largely responsible for bringing the "Bakersfield sound" to the masses.  It was in their combined efforts that the "classic" sound of country and western music were updated with a more modern feel, and yet perhaps a bit moreso than Owens, Haggard remained rooted in the more traditional lyrical methods.  Though he had a number of songs throughout his career that not only defined his sound, but the modern country style as well, few of his compositions remain as brutally honesty and almost tragically beautiful as one can experience in Merle Haggard's unforgettable 1968 song, "Mama Tried."

Even from the very first notes of the song, one can quickly understand just how far from the "standard" musical idea of country "Mama Tried" falls.  The "twang" that is immediately present is almost the very definition of the "Bakersfield sound," and one cannot help but draw comparisons in tone to the sound of The Grateful Dead.  Truth be told, The Grateful Dead would later incorporate "Mama Tried" and other Haggard songs into their live performances, and this in itself proves just how far the influence of Haggard reached.  The opening arpeggio is one of the most beautifully moody ever recorded, and it maintains this power and presence throughout the entire duration of "Mama Tried."  Yet it is the rhythm section that manages to keep the song firmly embedded in the country sound, as there is a brilliant cadence to the drumming of Eddie Burris.  The way that bassist Jerry Ward is able to make the sound almost bounce is equally fantastic, and even those who may be biased toward the country genre cannot help but get wrapped up in the sonic presentation.  It is the fact that there seems to be no strict adherence to any singular genre that makes "Mama Tried" so musically unique, as there are clear traces of everything from country to jazz to slight signs of psychedelic within the sound, and it is this amazing combination that makes the song so memorable.

Though his musical compositions may lend themselves to other styles of music, the vocals and lyrics of Merle Haggard are as "classic country" as one can find anywhere.  His voice can work all over the vocal spectrum, and there is a strong sound and sense of honesty with every note he sings.  One can picture his songs being sung as easily around a campfire as in a local bar, and it is this ability to apply to so many situations that enabled Haggard to become such a success.  Yet in almost every case, it is far more about what he is singing that the sound of his voice, and one would be hard pressed to find a more straightforward and brutally honest performer as one finds in Haggard.  Though many of his other songs contained more universal themes, "Mama Tried" is largely autobiographical, and Haggard does himself no favors when turning the pen inward.  Throughout the song, Haggard perfectly captures the rough, often painful upbringing he experienced, from being raised in a converted boxcar to his well-documented run-ins with the law.  While many have rehashed the idea since, few have stated the theme of "troubled youth" as perfectly as when Haggard sings, "...despite all my Sunday learning, towards the bad, I kept on turning..."  Yet throughout the song, there is always a beautiful thankfulness and reverence for his own mother, capped off with the heartfelt statement, "...Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied, that leaves only me to blame 'cos Mama tried..."

As one listens to "Mama Tried," there are as many cases for it being a "standard" country song as there are elements that seem to stand in contrast to such a label, and this in many ways is the truly unique  sound that Merle Haggard brought to the world.  While many of his predecessors had turned to the wide-open expanses of "the range" to capture the feeling of country music, Haggard was able to find the same sentiment, but in the darker, perhaps more simple world in which he was raised.  Furthermore, this tale of his upbringing resonated with countless people that experienced similar childhoods, and one can easily argue that the sentiments he conveys are just as relevant to such situations today as they were more than forty years ago.  Haggard's voice never waivers for even a moment during "Mama Tried," and one gets the sense that while he knows his actions were wrong, he is not passing judgment at any point and simply "telling it like it is."  Though the song never attempts to get sentimental in the traditional manner, the amount of pain that can be felt in Haggard's singing cannot be denied, and "Mama Tried" is without question one of the most staggeringly heartfelt songs ever recorded.  It is almost impossible to name all of the artists that have used this song as an influence on their own music, as traces can be found in everything from blues to hard rock to the current country scene, and the fact that the song remains fitting even in the current world is a testament to what a special sound and sentiment was captured on Merle Haggard's magnificent 1968 single, "Mama Tried."

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