Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mama Tried - Merle Haggard and the Strangers

Mama Tried
Merle Haggard and the Strangers
Capitol ST8-2972

This is a modern reissue on 180 gram vinyl.  I did not like country music very much until my 20s.  Even when I started to appreciate it, I ignored Haggard who I associated with "Okie From Muskogee," a song I absolutely hated.  It took the Everly Brothers to bring me around.  They covered his songs "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried" on their classic album, "Roots" and I loved both songs.  I started buying Haggard's music.  I'm not a big fan, but I pick up his records when I see them at a good price.  With a few exceptions like Dolly Parton, most country artists in the 1960s and 1970s were singles artists, their albums are mostly filler, compilations are the smart buy to get their best tunes.  I don't think Haggard is any different but on this album the filler is pretty good.  Haggard wrote four songs for the record and by far the best one is the title track.  It is a moving song with autobiographical elements about a son who rebels against his mother and ends up in prison full of regret.  I prefer the Everlys' version for its superior arrangement but Haggard's version has a lot of drive and feeling.  I'm no expert on the man, but this is easily the best song I've ever heard him do.  I also like his vindictive "I'll Always Know" which is one of the liveliest cuts on the record.  "The Sunny Side of My Life" is the most upbeat song on the record, a welcome change from the doom and gloom that permeates the album although the song is ordinary at best.  It still beats the fourth song Haggard wrote for the album, "You'll Never Love Me Now" which is pretty much the definition of filler - generic and mundane.  The best of the non-originals is his cover of Dolly Parton's "In the Good Old Days" which recounts a youth spent enduring hardship.  I prefer Parton's original (which you can find on "The Best of Dolly Parton") but Haggard's performance is very strong, arguably his best vocal on the album.  Haggard grew up a dust bowl refugee so I think the song probably had a lot of resonance for him.  Given that he spent time in San Quentin, I would have expected him to relate to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" as well, but his performance instead sounds uninspired to me.  He does better with "Green Green Grass of Home" but plenty of guys have done it better than him.  With its depiction of a condemned inmate recalling his family and home, it fits well with the theme of the album.  I do prefer his version of "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me" over Dean Martin's hit version.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  Mel Tillis' mournful "I Could Have Gone Right" revisits the theme of the title track as an imprisoned son apologizes to his mother for going wrong.  It lacks the vitality of "Mama Tried" but Haggard sings it well.  He has an even better vocal on Leon Payne's "Teach Me To Forget" although I find the song kind of tedious.  Dallas Frazier's "Too Many Bridges to Cross Over" is not much better but at least it is faster.  "Run 'Em Off" is the oddest song on the record.  It was a country hit for Lefty Frizzell in 1954.  It sounds old fashioned and its humor makes it stand out awkwardly from the rest of the tunes.  I count four really good cuts on this album and two pretty good near misses which adds up to half the album which is a better than average percentage for a 1960s country album.  Unless you are a big fan, you can probably pass it up, but I'm not sorry I bought it.  Recommended to Johnny Cash fans.

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