Mama Tried

It started with a recent episode of Fear The Walking Dead, which featured Mama Tried by Merle Haggard as the intro song. I was gobsmacked. (I just like saying “gobsmacked”.)

I’ve not been a recent country-music fan, with the watery, overproduced Nash Vegas quasi-pop that now befouls the genre. But I grew up listening to old-skool C&W in the car with Dad: the likes of Lefty Frizzel, Faron Young, Jim Reeves, Charley Pride, and – of course – Merle Haggard. So when I heard Merle’s plaintive baritone atop the twang of a Telecaster, memories flooded back. Mama Tried became the song I can’t get out of my head.

Now I’m hooked. Merle led me to the Bakersfield Sound. I’d heard the term before, but didn’t know what it meant. It was developed in the 1950’s, by Buck Owens and a few others, from the music the Okies brought with them to California during the Depression, as they fled the Dust Bowl for work out West. Haggard and a handful of colleagues chipped in to help put it on the map. It’s a stripped-down, clean sound that was expressly a reaction to the over-orchestrated stuff that Nashville was putting out. Just a clear voice like Merle’s or Buck’s, with a soft drum keeping time, a Telecaster for punctuation, and maybe an acoustic guitar providing a rhythm line. Quintessentially American.

I’ve also revisited a few of Dad’s favorites, among those I mentioned above. And I found one or two I’d never heard of before – like Gary Stewart, with his high, almost falsetto, vibrato, King of the Honkeytonks. My wife, who as far as I know does not read this blog, would be happy to know he was born in Letcher County, Kentucky.

I have something like 40 songs on a Spotify playlist, which have been in continuous rotation in the car for a week or so. I give it another few weeks, then I’ll be on to the next thing. But those sweet Telecaster licks from Mama Tried will be harder to expunge.

Michael Sebastian @mikeseb