In 1981, Merle Haggard released an album of Gospel songs entitled SONGS FOR THE MAMA THAT TRIED. In 1994, MCA Records resequenced the album (deleting one track, a cover of the Carter Family's "Keep On The Sunnyside") and retitled the disc WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE IN JESUS.
It's hard to listen to the spartan arrangements and moving vocal performances on WHAT A FRIEND without remembering the many struggles of Haggard's life: childhood poverty, early imprisonment, and, after his rise to fame, problems with drugs, alcohol, and personal relationships. Haggard's life experiences deepen his performances on WHAT A FRIEND; his singing manages to communicate both his desire to approach God and his regrets over past failings. Several songs deal directly with man's unworthiness of God's love, others with the loss of loved ones and the challenge that poses to faith. But Haggard imbues even the songs of pure faith, such as "In The Garden" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" with a powerful sadness, taking WHAT A FRIEND to a level of profundity many country Gospel albums never approach.