From the National Recording Registry: “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard (1968)

From the National Recording Registry: “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard (1968)

When Merle Haggard released “Mama Tried” in 1968, it quickly became his biggest hit. But, although in terms of broad reception, the song would be shortly eclipsed by the controversies surrounding Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” (released the next year), “Mama Tried” was a path-breaking song in several significant ways. It efficiently marked important, shaping changes to country music made by the generation of musicians and audiences who came of age post-World War II (as did Haggard, who born in 1937). “Mama Tried,” then, encompasses and articulates developments of both Haggard’s career and artistic focus, and the direction of country music in general.

Indeed, Haggard’s own story usefully traces the trajectory of modern country music. Haggard was born near the city of Bakersfield, California, in a converted boxcar. He was born two years after his parents, who were devastated Dust Bowl “Okies,” traveled there from East Oklahoma as part of the migration most famously represented by John Steinbeck in “Grapes of Wrath” (1939)–an important novel that presented and commented on the class-based contempt that “Okies” faced in California. Haggard confronted this contempt throughout his career (and even after his 2016 death, the class-based contempt continues). His family (including Haggard himself) took up a range of jobs, including agricultural work, truck-driving, and oil-well drilling. Labor remained a defining factor of Haggard’s music until he died in 2016, and he frequently found ways to refer to his musicianship as work (making a sharp joke on an album, for instance, about the connection between picking cotton and picking guitar).


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