That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
It was forty years ago that Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for their “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” The year before, Nelson and Jennings had released the song on their debut collaboration Waylon and Willie. The song topped the country charts for four weeks in the spring of 1978, and its crossover appeal garnered it a #42 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. This was at the height of the outlaw country movement. That insurgent blend of country, rock, and pop redefined the genre and made it more palatable for those outside of Nashville who had a curiosity about honky tonks.
Of course, there is a much longer arc that connects country and rock and roll. That arc extends through Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Gram Parsons’ influence on The Rolling Stones, and the songcraft of Townes Van Zandt. But near the beginning of that arc was Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. It was there that a blend of country and rock music known as “rockabilly” came into being, with Sam Phillips as its enthusiastic producer and promoter. The rockabilly of the 1950s is where the story of “Mammas” starts.
In 1957, a young singer named Edwin Bruce recorded his first single for Sun, called “Rock Boppin Baby.” It sounds so similar to Gene Vincent that Bruce’s identity is lost within the crooning and reverb.
Fast-forward nearly twenty years. Veteran singer-songwriter Bruce—now sporting a robust mustache—had been penning more traditional country fare and languishing in near obscurity, until his 1975 song “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” reached #15 in the Billboard Hot Country charts. It was an impressive showing for Bruce, who had the respect of country artists but little commercial success.
Bruce’s version is subdued, with sparse instrumentation and restraint. It is certainly an ode to traditional country music, while Bruce’s voice sounds more natural here than it had on his rockabilly tunes. Though he does sound a lot like Kris Kristofferson.
Perhaps it was Bruce’s oscillation between rockabilly and traditional country that appealed most to the outlaws. Three years after Bruce’s single peaked, Jennings and Nelson took the song into the stratosphere and broadened its audience.
The success of “Mammas” earned Bruce more esteem, and his biggest hits came in the early 1980s. He reached #1 on the country charts in 1981 with “You’re the Best Break this Ol’ Heart Has Ever Had.” And it was this success that helped Bruce segue into his future career in television, starring alongside James Garner in Bret Maverick from 1981 to 1982.