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Country Clichés Unraveled: ‘Mama Tried’

'Mother' is a saint in so many country songs. Though there have been exceptions.
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Merle Haggard 1970

Merle Haggard (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By Kurt Wolff

In our new series Country Cliches Unraveled, Radio.com takes a look at common subjects that have populated country songs for decades. This week, the subject is mothers.

Whether she’s alive or dead, in country music, mothers are saints. At least, that’s the picture we get when looking at how dear ol’ mom has been treated in songs throughout the past century.

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Ne’er Forget

Since country music traffics so often in sentimentalism, it’s little surprise mothers were a favorite subject during the dawn of the commercial country era in the 1920s, which was frequently populated by rural versions of Victorian-era parlor songs.

In 1925, for instance, Vernon Dalhart sang “I Will Ne’er Forget My Mother and My Home,” a sticky-sweet remembrance of an idealized childhood. One of Dalhart’s contemporaries, Carson Robison, also chimed in on the topic, though recordings of his like “Since Mother’s Gone,” “Mother’s Plea” and “You’ll Never Miss Your Mother Till She’s Gone” take on a more cautious tone – as in, don’t take your mama for granted, because she won’t be around forever.

Odes to mother didn’t stop in later decades, either. Kitty Wells sang fondly of “My Mother,” bluegrass legends the Stanley Brothers conjured “A Vision of Mother” and Hank Williams himself “Dreamed About Mama Last Night.” For honky-tonker Onie Wheeler, his “Mother Prays So Loud in Her Sleep” that she wakes the neighbors. And speaking of sleep, the Stanley Brothers returned to the theme with the sentimental yet curiously morbid “Mother’s Not Dead, She’s Only Asleep.”

The Carter Family sang often of mother, too, so it’s fitting that Johnny Cash and second-generation Carter Sisters recorded a tribute to original member Mother Maybelle Carter: “Mama you’re a trouper, mama you’re a soldier, mama you mean a lot to me.”

And the character in Johnny Paycheck’s song “21 Miles to Lake Charles Prison” certainly won’t forget the love of his mother. Even though he admits to killing his wife, mama still walked him to the train that was hauling him away.

“A few more hours my life will cease to be
But I won’t mind that last mile I’ll walk it with a smile
As long as your sweet face is the last thing that I see.”

Mama Tried

Sadly, so many of the protagonists in country songs chose to ignore the advice of their mothers, which is another popular topic, and one that came to fit well with the down-and-out, born-to-lose character of country’s honky-tonk era.

It was possibly Jimmie Rodgers who led this trend. In “Mother the Queen of My Heart,” Rodgers talks about ignoring the advice of his mother, who on her deathbed pleaded, “son don’t start drinking and gambling, promise you’ll always go straight.” And what did he do? Well, clearly if he’d followed her advice, we wouldn’t have much of a song.

Years later, Merle Haggard picked up on this theme of ignoring mother’s advice in “Mama Tried,” one of his most classic songs. “In spite of all my Sunday learning toward the bad I kept on turning,” Haggard sings, “mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied.” And that, friends, is why the fellow in the song wound up “turn[ing] 21 in prison doing life without parole.”

A few years later, Johnny Paycheck echoed the goings-on in Haggard’s songs with his own take on the mama’s-boy-gone-bad theme in the wickedly delicious “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised).” In Paycheck’s song, his mama loved him plenty, which, he speculates, is maybe “why she let me go so far.” And by “far” he means drugs (“She told me not to smoke it, but I did, and it took me far away”), stealing cars, robbing liquor stores and, ultimately, landing in the slammer. The song ends with him aching for “the good ole days” with his mother talking about Jesus and singing hymns.

Taking the bad-boy concept even further was Steve Earle, whose songs “The Devil’s Right Hand” has become something of a standard among the outlaw set in country.

Mama Didn’t Try

In a curious flip, sometimes it’s the kids who are innocent and the mothers who do wrong or go off the deep end. Eddy Arnold, no stranger to sentimental pap himself, turned the ‘mother as saint’ trope on its head with “Mommy Please Stay Home with Me.” In that song, the mother leaves her “baby son” at home to go out and whoop it up with a bunch of other “merry makers,” despite his pleas to “stay home with me.” The song, though, is no less a tragic, as when she finally returns home, the boy’s “in raging pain” and, finally, he dies. Talk about a tearjerker!

And Arnold wasn’t the only one singing about less-than-stellar mothers. In Charlie Louvin’s song “Here’s a Toast to Mama,” he takes the point of a view of a guy who never knew his mother at all – and eventually winds up on skid row. “Mama, “did you even stop to kiss me when you left me laying at the stranger’s door?” he sings.

The Best Day

Mothers continue to crop up in contemporary songs as well, which is little surprise, considering that strong bonds to family and home are still regular go-to subjects. Taylor Swift, for instance, pays tribute to her mother in “The Best Day,” a gentle, sweet ballad from her 2008 album Fearless. “I don’t know who I’m gonna talk to now at school,” Swift sings, “But I know I’m laughing on the car ride home with you.”

Blake Shelton took his ode to mama all the way to No. 1 in 2002. “The Baby” was written by Michael White and Harley Allen, but Shelton made the lyrics his own, since he was the baby in his family. “I don’t care if you’re 80,” the mother tells Shelton in the song, “you’ll always be my baby.”

And it’s little surprise that The Band Perry, being a trio of siblings with strong family support, would have a song that pays tribute to their mother. “She’s the sky that holds the clouds” and “the light in the window of the house I grew up in,” the Perrys sing on “Mother Like Mine,” a gentle ballad that appeared on their 2013 release Pioneer.

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