The country music legend is known for being an integral part of the outlaw country movement, a reputation accompanied by his days in San Quentin Prison, but here, we have a much more heartfelt moment from The Hag.
Merle Haggard was locked up in Bakersfield, CA, on counts of burglary, and was transferred to San Quentin after a failed escape attempt 1958. It was in San Quentin that he fell in love with country music, after hearing a prison performance from the Man In Black himself, Mr. Johnny Cash.
His days in San Quentin were the inspiration for a lot of his songs, including the song we all know and love, “Mama Tried.”
The lyrics in “Mama Tried” describe the hardships that Merle’s mother went through while trying to raise him and his siblings, and how his childhood in poverty led him to a life of crime.
“And 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”
This song landed Merle his fifth number one song on The Billboard Hot Country Singles charts in 1968, and ultimately won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. It was even selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry due to its “cultural, historic, or artistic significance” on March 23, 2016, only 14 days before Haggard’s death.
With all of the notoriety “Mama Tried” brought to Haggard, he couldn’t forget the one person who influenced this song the most: Mama Haggard herself.
Here we see a tenderhearted moment between a mother and her son, as Merle sings “Mama Tried” to the “mama that tried” her hardest. With his mom sitting in the front row, bursting with emotion as her son performs a song in her honor, you can only imagine how special this performance was for ol’ Merle.
According to CMT, Merle Haggard was accepting a career achievement award from Country Radio Broadcasters back in 2009 when an Emmylou Harris tribute performance of “Kern River” brought back a memory from his days on Epic Records.
When Merle took the stage, he recalled a certain label executive (Rick Blackburn) that hated the song. And in true Merle Haggard fashion, he let him have it. The conversation went a little something like this:
Blackburn: “I’d like to tell you one more time. I don’t like ’Kern River.’”
Merle: “That’s about the third time you’ve told me that.”
Blackburn: “It’s more like five times.”
Merle: “Well, I’m about five times short of telling you to go to hell.”
He continued on:
Merle: “Who do you think you are? You’re the son of a bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son of a bitch I’ve ever met.”