Isn’t it amazing when the classic meets modern? Well, that’s just what happened when two country superstars took the stage for the iconic song “Mama Tried. 

In 2004, during Willie Nelson’s concert, Willie Nelson & Friends: Outlaws and Angels at Wiltern Theatre, Los Angeles, Nelson invited two of the biggest names in country music – it’s none other than Merle Haggard and Toby Keith.

“I’d like to bring to you my very favorite best friend, Merle Haggard. He’s been a big influence on Toby Keith all his life. And like Merle, Toby sure has had a big influence on country music for the last few years,” Nelson said as he welcomed Haggard and Keith on the stage.

Haggard kicked off the performance by singing the first verse, and then he was followed by Keith. And when the two crooners mix their vocals, that’s where the magic happens.

“And I turned twenty-one in prison doin’ 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,” Haggard and Keith singing together. 

While Nelson didn’t sing, he played the guitar for Haggard and Keith’s high-energy duet, bringing a new level to Haggard’s classic hit.

The Song Is Heavily Influenced By Merle Haggard’s Early Life

Written by Merle Haggard himself, “Mama Tried” was heavily based on the pain and suffering Haggard caused his own mother after being in prison at San Quentin in 1957.

However, the song is not autobiographical, as pointed out by several country music historians. For instance, the man in the song “turned twenty-one in prison doin’ life without parole,” but Haggard never had a sentence of “life without parole.”

Still, its lyrics and the man’s experiences in the song were heavily influenced by Haggard’s early life. “Mama Tried” was released in 1968 as the first single and title track of Haggard’s album of the same name. The song then went on to become one of the cornerstone songs of his career. 

“Mama Tried” won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry due to its “cultural, historical, or artistic significance” in 2016, just two weeks before Haggard’s death.

Merle Haggard died during his 79th birthday on April 6, 2016. He died of complications from pneumonia at his home in Palo Cedro, Shasta County, California – and the country music community was left feeling lost. Keith was one of the many who was hit especially hard. 

“He had the look; he had the voice; he had the name; he was a songwriter and a great guitar player. He was just the consummate singer-songwriter,” Keith said. Tune in below and enjoy Haggard and Keith’s incredible performance in the video below.