Ed Bruce, a singer/songwriter and actor who had his own run of hits on the country charts but was 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, Tenn. and the cause of death was 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.
Of “Mammas,” 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.
His discography actually dated back to 1957, when he released “Rockin’ Boppin’ Baby,” but it wasn’t until 1966 that he began to appear on country charts. His own version of “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” preceded Nelson’s and represented his first entry into the top 20, at No. 15 in 1975. “You’re the Best Break…” in 1982 was his first top 10 song, as well as his only chart-topper. 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.
“Mammas,” which Bruce co-wrote with his then-wife Patsy Bruce, 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 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.
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.
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”).
Bruce did voiceover work early in his career, and turned to acting after his country career waned, with 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.”
Bruce received a lifetime achievement award from the Arkansas Country Music Association in 2018.