By Katherine Cole
In the US, we celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May—a bit later than our friends in the UK and several European and Middle Eastern countries, but earlier than some. But no matter which day you’re honoring Mom, there are plenty of songs for the occasion. In fact, there are so many “mother” songs in country music — and especially bluegrass — that it’s practically a sub-genre, just like love songs or “murder ballads.” In fact, bluegrass aficionados will tell you there’s even a special category set aside for extremely sad “dead mother songs,” but we won’t really dwell on those today. (But if you ever want a good cry, just leave a comment and I’ll give you a list of the real weepy ones…)
So in this vast repertoire of songs devoted to Mom, what should we listen to for Mother’s Day? Here are my picks for the four best mom-songs:
4) “Mama Tried” — Merle Haggard. One of the greatest “mother” songs in country has to be Merle Haggard‘s “Mama Tried,” in which a young man sitting in jail talks about all the pain and suffering he’s put his mother through. And while Haggard did serve time in San Quentin and “Mama Tried” is based on his early life, the song isn’t autobiographical—he was never sentenced to life without parole like the character in the song. “Mama Tried” has been recorded by a number of other artists, but Merle’s version still reigns supreme.
3) “Grandma’s Hands” — Sarah Jarosz. I first met singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz when she was twelve or thirteen years old, playing in the kids band contest at the Old Settler’s Music Festival in Austin, Texas. Since then, she’s released two CDs, had a Grammy nomination and will be graduating from the New England Conservatory in a few weeks. A few years ago, Sarah added a great cover of Bill Wither’s “Grandma’s Hands” to her repertoire. I think a “grandma” song fits in with the rest today because you can’t be a grandmother without being a mother, first.
2) “Mother” — Natalie Maines. Pink Floyd’s “Mother” is a song that that is been interpreted (and perhaps mis-interpreted) endlessly since it was first released on “The Wall” in 1979 . The song is written in a question and answer style between “Pink” and his mother. In his 1979 interview with Tommy Vance, Roger Waters commented that “if you can level one accusation at mothers it is that they tend to protect their children too much. Too much and for too long. That’s all.” And that’s pretty much what this song is about—an overprotective mother who has already lost her husband is trying to keep her son safe from the same fate. Pearl Jam has an interesting cover of “Mother,” but I’m particularly intrigued with Natalie Maines‘ version, which I first heard on the “West of Memphis” soundtrack. She’s also using it as the title track for her first solo CD. Natalie’s “Mother” is a more sympathetic character than the original … and the twist works well.
1) “Coat of Many Colors” — Dolly Parton. I’m sure you’re wondering if I have a favorite Mother’s Day song. Truth is, it changes from year to year. I’m feeling a bit sentimental today, so I’ll go with this Dolly Parton classic. It’s the one that Dolly has said many times is her favorite of the many she’s written. Like so many of Dolly’s songs, it’s a true story: her mother really did stitch together a coat out of a bag of rags given to the family. As she sewed, she told the biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. And yes, Dolly says “with patches on my britches and holes in both my shoes,” she really did run to school, “just to find the others laughing and making fun of me” for wearing a coat made of scraps.
Those are my picks for Mother’s Day. Let me know what’s on your playlist of favorite Mom-Songs.