Recorded between February and June 1968, Mama Tried was the seventh album by Merle Haggard in three years; but such an abundance of material was totally justified, as it became the best work of his ‘golden age’. Without being a conceptual album it has a recurring theme: prison, from the iconic cover to the wonderful song that gives it its title, with Haggard remembering his time in San Quentin where, as he says in the song, he turned 21.
At the time of its release, in October '68, Haggard was the biggest country music star in America with five numbers ones in that charts to his credit: I'm a Lonesome Fugitive, Branded Man, Sing Me Back Home, The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde and Mama Tried itself; the last three released in 1968. They would not be the last and Haggard would have 38 numbers 1 throughout his career. But, despite the fact that the following year would have its particular counterculture controversy due to Okie From Muskogee, Haggard was also beginning to be highly valued by counter-cultural icons, and hippies, such as Keith Richards, the Byrds and Grateful Dead, which would lead to his name being key in the burgeoning field of country rock, with his songs being covered in the first examples of that style – such as Sweetheart of The Rodeo by the Byrds, Roots by the Everly Brothers or Safe At Homeby The International Submarine Band, the first band of his best-known disciple in the rock world, Gram Parsons. Over time he would also become a reference for the whole 'outlaw' movement led by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, thanks to the sound that he had helped to popularize with Buck Owens, known as the 'Bakersfield sound' that replaced the polished sound of Nashville strings for the fiery Telecaster and the pedal steel.
For this he had at his disposal a mythical band, the Strangers, among which featured the excellent guitarist Roy Nichols and the no less fundamental Norm Hamlett on pedal steel. The two appear on what is the most important and well-known song on the album, Mama Tried. This is an autobiographical song in which Haggard apologizes to his mother for his unruly youth, which led him to be locked up several times but in which, at the same time, he affirms his independence. They are not the only great musicians that appear and Haggard's favourite guitarist, James Burton, also leaves his mark with the dobro that opens the song. Nichols is responsible for the solo with his Telecaster, and does a great job.
In addition to this there are three other great compositions by Haggard. I'll Always Know is one of the hidden gems on the album. With a devastating phrase at the beginning "Revenge must be the reason why forgiveness was a thing I never knew", it is one of the catchiest songs of his career. It is followed by The Sunny Side Of My Life that features his wife’s excellent vocal harmonies, Bonnie Owens (who had also been the wife of Buck Owens). Finally, You'll Never Love Me Now opens with excellent pedal steel work by Hamlet, similar to what the Flying Burrito Brothers would start with shortly after, and again demonstrates the enormous status of Haggard as a composer on his own.
Neither do the remaining eight covers detract from the original material and Haggard proves to be an excellent interpreter of other’s work. Among the most outstanding are Little Ole Wine Drinker Me, In the Good Old Days by Dolly Parton, Teach Me to Forget by Leon Payne or the one that is probably the most important for him, Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash. In fact, while he was locked in San Quentin, shortly after turning 21, on January 1, 1959, Cash played in the prison, and that became a defining moment in Haggard’s life, who at that moment decided to follow in the footsteps of the man in black.
And he did it with full honours, becoming one of the most important names in the history of country, able to hobnob with the aforementioned Cash, Willie Nelson or the father of this music himself: Hank Williams. He also did it (as Sinatra would say) his way, talking about things he knew first-hand, such as the lives of working class people who inhabit that wasteland between the two coasts of the United States, to which few people pay attention. He knew how to romanticize their daily lives and managed to give them a voice. They called him the ‘poet of the people’, and they were not wrong.