Ed Bruce, the country singer/songwriter and actor who had his own run of hits on the country charts but was arguably best known for co-writing Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings’ “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” has died at age 81. He died in Clarksville, Tennessee, with the cause of death given as natural causes.
Bruce was also recognized for playing the second lead to James Garner on NBC’s 1981-82 Bret Maverick, a one-season reboot of Maverick, as well as writing and singing the show’s theme song.
A teenager at Sun
Born in Keiser, Arkansas in 1939, Bruce was a Memphis resident of only 17 when he approached Cowboy Jack Clement and eventually Sam Phillips and ended up recording the rockabilly single “Rock Boppin’ Baby” for the Sun label, then under the name of Edwin Bruce.
“Rockin’ Boppin’ Baby” was released in 1957, but it wasn’t until 1966 that Bruce began to appear on country charts. His own version of “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” preceded Willie Nelson’s and represented his first entry into the Top 20, at No.15 in 1975.
Ed Bruce co-wrote “Mammas…” with his then-wife Patsy. It was also recorded by country star Chris LeDoux in 1976 before Nelson and Jennings memorably got to it in 1978. Their version, from the album Waylon & Willie, topped the country chart for four weeks, and Nelson cut it again as a solo artist for the film The Electric Horseman. The song has continued to be one of the foremost staples in Nelson’s sets and has often appeared in films and commercials.
The best of both worlds
Of writing one of the most iconic country hits of all time, Bruce said in a 2012 interview, “It was a Top 15 record for me. And actually when I finished writing it, there was a question of whether I was gonna record it or whether I wanted pitch it to Waylon. There was no doubt in my mind it was a No.1 song. It wound up I had the best of both worlds, really. Because it established me as an artist, and of course later Waylon cut it and drug Willie in off the street and overdubbed him, and gosh, it was No.1 for two or three more weeks. [The song remained on top for four weeks, actually]. It was a good song.”
Bruce had a No.1 hit in 1982 with “You’re the Best Break This Old Heart Ever Had,” which finally had the singer reaching the top after 21 previous charting hits. He went on to have a total of a half-dozen Top 10 country hits, the last of which was “Nights” in 1986, after which he only intermittently released new material.
His songs were also recorded by Tanya Tucker, who had hits with both “The Man That Turned My Mama On” and “Texas (When I Die),” as well as pop star Tommy Roe (“Save Your Kisses”) and country legend Charlie Louvin (“See the Big Man Cry”).
Ed Bruce did voiceover work early in his career, and turned to acting after his country career waned. In addition to his involvement with Bret Maverick, he made appearances in films including Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, the Steven Seagal vehicle Fire Down Below and the TV series The Chisholms and Walker, Texas Ranger. In the 1980s, he hosted two television shows, Truckin’ USA and American Sports Cavalcade. He also received a lifetime achievement award from the Arkansas Country Music Association in 2018.