When I heard the news last month that country music legend Merle Haggard had died, I immediately remembered a rainy night in Georgia more than thirty years earlier. With oozing red clay rising above the ankles of my Converse tennis shoes, I slogged through a monsoon to a pole barn in an open field, a pole barn with sawdust on the ground, metal folding chairs, and a stage.
On that stage was “The Hag,” in his prime, spinning his mythical tunes for a sold-out show. It was the first live concert I ever attended, the largest crowd I had ever seen, and for a child reared in strict, Appalachian fundamentalism that eschewed all “worldly” and “carnal” corruptions, it was the opening to a whole new world.
With the news report still fresh and my memories fresher, the first tune that I began to sing to myself was Merle’s iconic 1968 release, “Mama Tried.” Haggard wrote the song while incarcerated in San Quentin, and the mama that tried was certainly his own. A hard-working, God-loving, church-going woman, Flossie Mae Haggard did her best to raise her rebellious son in the absence of a deceased father.
Yet, “despite all his Sunday learning, toward the bad Merle kept turning,” until his mother “couldn’t hold him anymore.” She had to surrender him into God’s hands. She didn’t give up, mind you, but she reached a place where her trying would have to be enough, and God would have to take care of the rest.
My three children, all teenagers, are older now than I was when I first saw that concert all those years ago. So I haven’t been parenting as long as some, but long enough to know – especially in tumultuous adolescence – that success in parenting is difficult to measure. It’s not like playing a game where the score is clearly seen. It’s not like running a race where you know how far you have come and just how much further you have to go.
The only thing a parent can do is try, and try with all his or her might. Give your kids the best shot at success you can give. Hold them on the straight and narrow as long as you can. Keep “trying to raise them right.” And if they refuse, pray that something will stick, and when your ability to influence or direct reaches its limit, that the good Lord will take over where you let go.
In the end, it worked out for Flossie. Her son journeyed from a prison cell to musical immortality. And he was more than a success; he was changed. In one of his last interviews Haggard said, “I believe in the heavenly Father, and if he is not there, then there is somebody disguising himself and answering my prayers. And I believe that if you give it half a shot, that he will help you. And he certainly has me.” Surely, Merle learned that lesson from his mama.