Please have a box of tissues within reach. Mamas are a tearful subject in country music whether those mamas are nourishing or nasty. Here — just in time for Mother’s Day — are a dozen of the most dramatic and memorable mom-inspired lyrics, arranged chronologically. Ready, set, weep!
“Mother the Queen of My Heart” (Jimmie Rodgers, 1932, never charted; written by Hoyt “Slim” Bryant, Jimmie Rodgers) — Even in death, mama comes through. Disregarding the warnings of his “kindest old mother,” our boy surrenders to “drinking and gambling” after she’s passed on. Then one day in a poker games, he turns over the card he’s drawn and sees his mother’s face. This time, he takes her advice seriously.
“Mommy Please Stay Home With Me” (Eddy Arnold, 1945, never charted; written by Eddy Arnold, Wally Fowler, J. Graydon Hall) — Here’s the setup: “A mother went out on a party/She left at home her baby son/He cried and begged her not to leave him/But she would not give up her fun.” Can you guess where the situation goes from there? This is a two-tissue minimum.
“I Dreamed About Mama Last Night” (Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter, 1951, never charted; written by Fred Rose) — In this recitation, Luke describes a selfless mother who is so devoted to her kids that she won’t go to bed until they’re all safe at home. She’s even cheerful about her self-sacrifice.
“Give Mother My Crown” (Flatt & Scruggs, 1956, never charted; written by Walter Bailes) — This mama raises “her children on a widow’s small pay” that she earns from “washing and ironing.” In heaven, says the singer, “If I’ve a crown coming when awards go around/Please, blessed Jesus, give Mother my crown.”
“Mommy for a Day” (Kitty Wells, No. 5, 1959; written by Harlan Howard, Buck Owens) — This weeper is sung from the mother’s point of view. She’s been cast out by her husband, she tells us, because people have told him lies about her. So he’s restricted her access to their “little girl” to Sunday afternoons. Naturally, the daughter’s confused by what’s going on, and mama can’t easily explain it.
“Mama Tried” (Merle Haggard, No. 1, 1968; written by Merle Haggard) — Of all the mama songs in country music, this is probably the most recognized one — which is a real achievement considering the tough competition. The nugget of the story is this: “I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole/No one could steer me right, but Mama tried.” It carries the message as “Mother the Queen of My Heart,” which, by the way, Haggard also recorded.
“Here’s a Toast to Mama” (Charlie Louvin, No. 42, 1970; written by Buck Owens, Gene Price) — What was it with Buck Owens and mamas? (Note that he also co-wrote “Mommy for a Day.”) Despite its jolly title, this is a sad, bitter, sarcastic song, rendered in the voice of a son whose mother abandoned him as an infant. “Oh, how I wish I could’ve known you mama/Maybe now I wouldn’t feel the shame/Maybe now I wouldn’t feel so empty/’Cause mama I don’t even know your name.” He “toasts” her with wine he bought after finding a dollar on the sidewalk. Pretty heavy stuff and a thematic precursor to Kellie Pickler’s “I Wonder.”
“Roses for Mama” (C.W. McCall, No. 2, 1977; written by Gene Dobbins, Wayne Sharpe, Johnny Wilson) — In this recitation — guaranteed to crack the steeliest heart — a guy decides to visit his friend in Florida for a few days of drinking and wenching. He tells his mother in Tennessee he’s on a tight schedule but will try to stop and see her on his way back. The incidents that ensue are too convoluted to go into here. But prepare to cry your eyes out before the song ends on a redemptive note.
“Mama Knows” (Shenandoah, No. 5, 1988, written by Tony Haselden, Tim Mensy) — An affectionate tribute to the kind of mom who knows what’s going on with her kids before they’re prepared to tell her. In other words, just about every mom.
“Mama Don’t Forget to Pray for Me” (Diamond Rio, No. 9, 1991; written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell) — Leaving home doesn’t mean leaving mama. Here the singer is on a career fast track but still incredibly homesick and in need of a mother’s reassurance. “I just thought of you and home and got a little sad.”
“Is There Life Out There” (Reba McEntire, No. 1, 1992; written by Rick Giles, Susan Longacre) — This song mentions neither mother nor child, but both are implicit in the question, “Is there life beyond [my] family and [my] home?” Unlike most of the mothers considered in the songs cited above, this modern one doesn’t find fulfillment in simply serving her husband and kids. Even so, “She doesn’t want to leave/She’s just wonderin’/Is there life out there.”
“I Wonder” (Kellie Pickler, No. 14, 2007; written by Kellie Pickler, Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo, Karen Rochelle) — Another case of infant abandonment and the lingering wounds it leaves. The song goes, “I think about how it ain’t fair/That you weren’t there to braid my hair like mothers do . . . Did you even miss me through the years at all.” That this song is based on Pickler’s own childhood makes it all the more heartbreaking.
Want to hear more? Then try Billy “Crash” Craddock’s “My Mama Never Heard Me Sing,” the Judds’ “Mama He’s Crazy,” Bill Anderson’s “Mama Sang a Song,” Flatt & Scruggs’ “Mother Prays Loud in Her Sleep,” the Forrester Sisters’ “Mama’s Never Seen Those Eyes,” John Conlee’s “Mama’s Rockin’ Chair” and, of course, Blake Shelton’s No. 1 single from 2002, “The Baby.”
And then there’s Dottie West’s baldly manipulative “Mommy, Can I Still Call Him Daddy,” which pairs her vocally with her then 4-year-old son, Dale. But listen at your own risk. You could drown in those puddles of tears.