Despite all my Sunday learning
Towards the bad I kept on turning
Till Mama couldn't hold me anymore
And I turned twenty-one 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
— "Mama Tried," No. 1 hit by Merle Haggard released in July 1968
Merle Haggard's friend Johnny Cash only sang at San Quentin State Prison in California.
Haggard — who died Wednesday as he turned 79 — actually served three years at San Quentin on a burglary conviction and spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement, as The New York Times pointed out in today's front-page obituary.
Cash's performance prompted Haggard to form a prison band, noted the Los Angeles Times:
This real-life narrative would become a classic trope of country music. “Mama Tried,” considered by some critics to be Haggard's greatest song, is a fairly straight autobiographical account of his road to San Quentin.
Its indelible chorus — “I turned 21 in prison doin' life without parole” — exaggerates his sentence; paroled after less than three years, Haggard was able to unfurl his musical gifts under state supervision.
Reading mainstream media coverage of the county music legend's death, I see no mention of his self-proclaimed Christian faith. Did I miss this anywhere?
But the New York Times does reference Haggard's religious upbringing:
Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, in Oildale, Calif. His first years were spent in the abandoned boxcar that his father, James, a railroad carpenter, had converted into a home for his family. James Haggard died of a stroke in 1946, after which Mr. Haggard’s mother, the former Flossie Mae Harp, a strict and pious member of the ultraconservative Church of Christ, took a bookkeeping job to provide for her three children.
A strict and pious member of the ultraconservative Church of Christ. Please, tell me more.
On the one hand — as a lifelong Church of Christ member — I kind of understand what the irreligious and radically liberal Old Gray Lady is saying.
I mean, from the New York Times' perspective, folks who believe in attending worship three times a week and finding truth in the Holy Bible probably do qualify as "strict and pious" and "ultraconservative."
However, a more impartial, less editorialized description might refer to Haggard's mama as simply "a faithful member of the Church of Christ." This is one of those cases where specific, concrete facts might make for better journalism than vague, overgeneralized adjectives (especially when referring to a diverse group with 1.5 million adherents nationwide).
What else is known about the Church of Christ background of Haggard's mama? From the CMT.com artists website:
Flossie was a member of the Church of Christ, which led to her forcing her husband to stop playing the honky tonks. James died from a brain tumor when Merle was nine years old. After his father's death, Merle became rebellious. In an attempt to straighten her son out, his mother put him in several juvenile detention centers, but it had little effect on Merle's behavior. As a teenager, he fell in love with country music, particularly Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams. When he was 12 years old, Haggard was given his first guitar by his older brother; Merle taught himself how to play by listening to records that were lying around the house.
Meanwhile, this quote is from Haggard's sister Lillian in Bryan Di Salvatore's 1990 New Yorker profile of the singer, titled simply "Ornery":
“My mother was—well, embarrassed when she found herself pregnant a year or so after getting to California. She thought that having another child when she already had two teen-age children was—that it was too far apart. She didn’t exactly think that Merle was a sign or a gift from God—my mother was a member of the Church of Christ, and very religious, even sternly so—but she firmly believed, after Merle was born, that God had answered her prayers during pregnancy. She had prayed for a child who would inherit the family talent for music. Merle’s grandpa was the best fiddler back in McIntosh County, Oklahoma, and Dad played fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, and his brothers and sisters all played at local dances, though after Mom and Dad got married the playing was restricted to socials at home. Mom didn’t mind music—she played the organ—but she did mind the drinking and fooling around that went with commercial music. Merle was a funny child. At six months, he’d be lying there in his bassinet, and when the Stuart Hamblen country show came on the radio he’d begin kicking his little feet in time to the music. We experimented with other music, but he’d just lie there until we put Stuart Hamblen back on. Mom used to say that his first words were ‘Stu Ham.’ She thought he was talking about food, not the music.”
So, did Haggard's "Sunday learning" ever kick in?
The Christian Post reported in 2012 that Haggard cited his "Heavenly Father" as he battled an illness:
Though Haggard has a tough-guy personality, he has softened over the years and always prided himself on being honest with fans and the media. Haggard has also covered many Christian songs and opened up about his relationship with God. “So there is NO misunderstanding, let me testify, the power of the healing our Heavenly Father has bestowed upon me. In ’08 I was diagnosed with lung cancer. Most everyone knows that’s a death sentence! Not in my case!”
He continues on his website, “It’s almost embarrassing to know that the Lord cares that much for me. But, I am gonna (sic) shout it to the entire world. He healed me either at my request or someone else’s. There were a lot of prayers involved. But never for a moment do I give credit or claim any myself. The Man upstairs is still in charge.”
Haggard will turn 75 in April and says he is “a walking miracle…I might add a Healthy miracle. I give all the thanks to my Heavenly Father.”
Haggard's son Ben tweeted this just a few months ago:
And Merle Haggard himself tweeted this back in 2014:
I'm not certain Haggard's "strict and pious" mother would have tolerated that exact language.
But Mama tried.