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Classic Tracks: Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”

Merle Haggard talks about recording Mama Tried hit

Slicked up and properly packaged, many of today’s country music stars lack the root experiences that influenced George Jones, Waylon Jennings and other great talents who defined country and western in the middle years of the 20th century. Even among this earlier crew, however, Merle Haggard stands on separate ground.

His well-documented bio includes the loss of his father at an early age, a slide into juvenile delinquency and, ultimately, a series of adult incarcerations that informed Haggard’s writing and added a mournful inflection to his singing. Best known in non-country music circles for his 1969 hit, “Okie From Muskogee,” a humorous jibe at knee-jerk leftists, Haggard scored his fifth Number One hit on Billboard‘s country chart with “Mama Tried,” which was released a year earlier and, as much as any song, helped define his public persona.

“Mama Tried” was originally written for a low-budget Bonnie and Clyde-type movie called Killers Three, produced by Dick Clark. The lyrics are from the perspective of a troubled adult who regrets the path he’s taken in life, ignoring the sage advice of his dear mother, who had to raise her son without a father. It’s not exactly Haggard’s own story, but it’s close, and it rings with the wisdom of truth: “And I turned 21 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.” The music is Bakersfield twang — spare, direct, right on the money.

Recovering from lung surgery a few months ago, Haggard was in fine form in a spirited conversation during which he discussed his memories of recording “Mama Tried” and other topics. In conversation — as in song — it’s best to just let Merle Haggard do the talkin’:

“[Western swing pioneer] Bob Wills was a big influence, absolutely. When I was a boy, radio was in its prime. There was no television, and going to a movie was a big deal. So radio was the main source of music and entertainment of all kinds. Bob Wills was all over the radio, all day. There was a 100-kilowatt station that broadcast from Rosarita Beach, in Baja, Mexico, just across the border from where my family lived in Southern California. I used to catch their 7 p.m. Bob Wills show with my dad, and then listen to The Lone Ranger. Bob is still the best performer I ever heard or saw.

“My mother was a devout Christian, and she raised me the same way. She was left to widow when I was 9, and there was nobody in the house but her and I, so I felt over-obligated to her. I also felt that she had so much work to do to try and raise me, it probably caused me to leave home early. My mother was the finest lady in the world. She died in 1985.

“I think going to prison did make me a better man; in fact, I’m sure it did, yes. I was a young guy when I went there, thought I was bullet-proof tough. Maybe I was, I don’t know — nobody ever took anything away from me on the inside. I learned a lot about the meaning of honesty in prison. You can’t tell somebody something in prison and not do it because they’ll see you the next day — bad dealings on a carton of cigarettes will cost you your life.

“There was that whole Bakersfield sound thing, a reaction against the Nashville sound that was getting so big and lush, but remember, it was only 80 miles from Bakersfield to Capitol Records Studio [in Hollywood] where we recorded ‘Mama Tried.’ The live echo chamber they had — still have — was a big part of the Bakersfield sound.

“We worked in both studios there — actually recorded ‘Mama’ in Studio A, the larger room. We had no preference; both were great studios, and each one had access to the echo chambers. Things were done much differently back then. You had three hours to record two or three songs. I’d meet with The Strangers, my band, in a coffee shop at 9 o’clock to discuss the arrangements; I sort of hummed the songs to them in the shop.

“As I recall, we recorded ‘Mama’ and ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ in one session, and ‘Today I Started Lovin’ You Again’ and ‘White Line Fever’ in another. Hugh Davies was the engineer. We discussed the mics we’d use, but he was the guy with experience in that area. I worried about the songs and arranging.”

In 1967, Bob Norberg was hired as an assistant engineer at Capitol and told to report immediately to a session that was under way. “The night supervisor sent me to Studio A to assist on a session of Merle’s,” says Norberg. “It wasn’t ‘Mama Tried’ that they were cutting, but I think they were working on that album.

“Capitol was a 4-track studio at the time, with a pair of Scully half-inch tape decks in each room,” Norberg continues. “The band was taped on two tracks, Merle’s vocal was on the third and the fourth track was left open for background vocals. Glen Campbell and Bonnie Owens were the backup singers on that album, and I remember thinking it was kind of funny that Glen was singing background because he was already an established solo artist at that time. Ken Nelson produced the album.

“Capitol Studios was built in the late 1950s as a mono facility, but the electronics were modified to 3-track shortly thereafter. The consoles were built in-house by Capitol engineers. In those days, they had a lab on Fletcher Drive in Glendale where the boards were built. They used Langevin solid-state modules for every mic channel; I think each board had 12 inputs. The studios switched over to 4-track in 1967.

“Most of the country material was recorded in Studio B, but we used Studio A, the bigger room, for Merle’s record and some other country recordings. There were hinged units attached to the walls that were soft on one side and hard on the other, which let you control the acoustics of the room. How noticeable was the change in coloration? To tell you the truth, we didn’t change things around that much. I do remember that if we had a classical session in room A, we’d often angle the hard sides out to give the studio a more live sound. Both A and B had this hinged arrangement, and even after the renovations that took place several years ago, Studio B still has them.

“We always cut Merle’s vocal with a U67. Buck Owens, too. I know Merle talked about the echo chambers. There were actually four of them under the parking lot, and about a year after I started working at Capitol we built four more! Many purist engineers and producers love these chambers and still use them to this day. They’re acoustic stereo chambers, two speakers and microphones in each one. Different speakers and mics will impart a slightly different characteristic to the sound.”

“Mama Tried” features a withering guitar signature from the pick of Roy Nichols and a rolling dobro part performed by James Burton. A Lousiana native who still lives in Shreveport, Burton was happy to discuss his time as a member of The Strangers and the Capitol Studios sessions. As every student of the era knows, Burton almost singlehandedly developed and defined the rock lead guitar sound. How did it happen?

“Mother and dad bought me a ’52 Tele, and I got into playing slide and steel guitar early on. I experimented with using banjo strings on the guitar to get a lighter sound and an unwound third string to get a twangier, funkier sound. I was able to create a whole different sound and technique, using the fingers and finger-picks to create banjo-like rolls on both the guitar and dobro. I used this technique on ‘Mama Tried.’

“Merle wanted a kind of banjo sound, and I thought the dobro would work well. Recording with Merle was a real treat. He was real easy to work with, and his singing was so good. [Producer] Ken Nelson was also a great guy to work with. He liked the simplicity of country music, wanted lyrics that told a good story and wasn’t into lots of strings or other overdubs.

“Normally, my sound was my sound. I’d have the engineer come in and listen to my amp, and I’d let him know that the tone it was producing was exactly the sound I wanted on the record. I didn’t want an engineer to EQ my sound at all. I was very careful to set the treble and bass to work with a specific song and artist. It was all in my ears.

“Merle is a great example of an artist who wrote material that reflected the life he lived. There are a lot of great writers today, but something’s gone out of country music. Maybe it’s the computer or marketing. It seems that we’ve lost something along the way.”

Haggard says, “I’m proud of the way ‘Mama Tried’ has stayed in people’s minds and hearts, and maybe helped define me. Even today, 40 years after it was released, I’ll do a concert and guys will come up and show me tattoos that say ‘Mama Tried.’ They’ll tell me — sometimes with tears in their eyes — how that song captures what they feel about their own mothers. That means a lot to me.”