There are many legendary country songs, and many legendary country songwriters. But few songs are as synonymous with country music to the point where they’re so well-recognized and can be recited by those well outside the country fold like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” It’s title may be long, but it says it all. And it ended up being a signature and singular contribution to the American music canon when Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson conjoined to take it to #1 in 1978.
But it was a long-time songwriter and struggling performer who wrote the song with his wife Patsy at the time, and had a minor hit with it himself a couple of years before. Ed Bruce is one of those legendary, behind-the-scenes icons in country music most everyone recognizes the name of, but not enough remember why. With his walrus mustache, thick voice, and rugged countenance, the Keiser, Arkansas-born songwriter and performer looked the part, and would go on to play it on the screen in later years.
Raised in Memphis, Ed Bruce weaseled his way into the good graces of the engineer of Sun Records during its heyday, “Cowboy” Jack Clement, a made a go at the music business at the age of 17. Working primarily as a songwriter at first and in the rockabilly vein of the late 50’s and early 60’s, he wrote a song called “Rock Boppin’ Baby” that got the attention of Sam Phillips himself. Then Bruce wrote “Save Your Kisses” for Tommy Roe in 1962, and in 1965, found some of his first big success on the country charts when “See The Big Man Cry” went to #7 for Charlie Louvin.
Ed Bruce tried to make it as a performer, but with mixed results. He was signed to RCA on a couple of occasions throughout the 60’s, minting only minor hits. In 1973 he signed with United Artists, and again struggled, but did find some success with his version of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” when it ended up at #15. But the career of Ed Bruce sort of meandered on, and he eventually he signed to Epic Records in 1977, the year Tanya Tucker took his song “Texas (When I Die)” to #5, and right before Willie and Waylon would do their worst on “Mammas,” and make it into a marquee country song of all time.
The major interest in “Mammas” resulted in renewed interest in Ed Bruce not just as a songwriter, but as a performer. Signing to yet another label in MCA in 1980, this is when Bruce found the success he’d been searching for ever since the early 60’s and Sun Records. Leaning heavy into the cowboy motif, Ed’s duet with Willie Nelson “The Last Cowboy Song” found the best success of his career in 1980. Then in 1981, Bruce scored his first #1 song in “You’re The Best Break This Old Heart Ever Had.”
Throughout the early and mid 80’s, Ed Bruce could regularly be heard on the radio, and continued to mine Top 5 hits such as “Ever, Never Lovin’ You,” “After All,” “You Turn Me On (Like a Radio),” and “Nights.”
This all ended in 1986, but not necessarily from the recording industry putting Ed Bruce out to pasture as is commonly the case. Portraying the cowboy so well resulted in opportunities for Ed Bruce to pursue a career as an actor, which by 1988 had become his primary passion. Having first appeared in Western television series Bret Maverick opposite James Garner in the early 80’s, the acting bug bit Ed Bruce hard, similar to how it had done for some of his contemporaries in country music at the time, including Willie Nelson.
Ed Bruce would go on to appear in numerous made-for-TV movies, hosted television shows such as Truckin’ USA and American Sports Cavalcade, and appeared in the move Fire Down Below starring Steven Seagal in 1997. Once Ed Bruce got involved in acting, he never really looked back.
But “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” continued to be a must-play song for both Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings for decades, and for a generation on country radio.
Ed Bruce died Friday, January 8, 2021, in Clarksville, Tennessee, of natural causes at age 81. He’s yet another major figure from an important generation of country music performers leaving us to ponder, “If ‘Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys’ had never been written, where would country music be today?”