Mama Tried was Merle Haggard’s third album release of 1968, following Sing Me Back Home and The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde, each of which added one more #1 hit to his growing list of accomplishments. By now his albums were relying more heavily on outside songwriters and Capitol was only releasing one single per LP, but that in no way suggests that there was a decline in quality. On the contrary, Haggard shows considerable skill in putting his own stamp on these songs. Case in point: Curly Putman’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” had previously been popularized by Porter Wagoner, Bobby Bare, Charley Pride, and Tom Jones, but Merle’s version, which ties in perfectly with the album’s prison theme, sounds as though it were written specifically for him. His interpretative ability is further tested as he tackles Dolly Parton’s “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)”. It isn’t easy to convincingly sing a highly personal, autobiographical song that someone else has written, but Merle passes with flying colors and his version easily holds its own with Parton’s original version. No one could ever outdo Johnny Cash on “Folsom Prison Blues”, but Haggard comes close. In his heyday he was a superior vocalist to Cash, and it is quite possible that those who are unfamiliar with the original version might prefer Merle’s take on the song.
The album’s main attraction, is of course, the title track, which became Haggard’s fifth #1 record. “Mama Tried” is my all-time favorite Haggard tune, and it arguably would be his signature song had he not later recorded “Okie From Muskogee”. Though only semi-autobiographical, the song is clearly an attempt to make amends for the pain Merle caused his mother when he was sent to prison. Though the lyrics are mournful, this is an uptempo honky-tonk number, heavy on the pedal steel and featuring some excellent electric guitar work from Roy Nichols. It must have stood in stark contrast to most of the other records on the charts at the time, which were mostly in the Nashville Sound or countrypolitan style. Another highlight is the very traditional “I Could Have Gone Right”, another prison song that sounds like a Haggard original, but which was actually penned by a still relatively unknown Mel Tillis. “Two Many Bridges To Cross Over”, written by the great Dallas Frazier, closes out the original album. This 2-for-1 reissue contains two bonus tracks, “I’m Looking for My Mind” and the religious number “You’re Not Home Yet.”
Pride In What I Am was the first of three Haggard albums released in 1969. He changes direction slightly, taking a break from the convict theme which had dominated his music over the previous two years. It was a wise move, since he would have quickly been pigeon-holed had he continued to release prison songs, but overall, the more mellow Pride In What Am is less interesting than Mama Tried or the two or three albums that preceded it.
This time around, Haggard wrote six of the album’s twelve tracks, including the title track, which temporarily interrupted his string of #1 hits, peaking at #3. Throughout this album, Merle seems to be backing away a bit from the hard-edged Bakersfield sound that had characterized his earlier albums. Pride In What I Am is a little closer to what was being produced in Nashville at the time. It uses Nashville Sound-like vocal choruses but eschews the lush string arrangements which were still in vogue in Music City. The production on “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am” reminds me somewhat of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” which had been a minor hit on the country charts about two years earlier. The album’s best track is the blues-tinged Haggard original “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line”. I’m also partial to “I’m Bringing Home Good News”, another Haggard-penned tune that brings some welcome energy to a largely mellow-sounding album.
Among the best of the non-Haggard written tunes are Merle’s tributes to his idols Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers. He covers the former’s “It Meant Goodbye To Me (When You Said Hello To Him” and the latter’s “California Blues (Blue Yodel No. 4)”
The CD reissue contains three bonus tracks, “California On My Mind”, “White Line Fever” and “Streets of Berlin”. Germany is an unusual setting for a Haggard song; this sounds like a song that would have been better suited for Marty Robbins, and Merle’s vocal performance sounds as though it were heavily influenced by his good friend.
Mama Tried and Pride In What I Am are easy to find, both separately, and as a 2-for-1 CD or digital download (the 2-for-1 option is better value). Mama Tried is essential listening, and while Pride In What I Am doesn’t quite reach that lofty level, it is still worth a listen.
Mama Tried: A
Pride In What I Am: B+