Ed Bruce – At Last, Getting the Breaks

First published in Country Music People, January 1982

Singer, Songwriter Ed Bruce – at last, Getting the Breaks 

ED BRUCE is one of the names that has been around on the scene for the best part of a quarter of a century, yet he’s never gained the recognition that is deserving—although he’s maintained a cult following. Now, with his current MCA deal, he’s moving more into the spotlight . . . as ALAN CACKETT reveals.

Ed Bruce looks like a real cowboy. In his denim shirt and Levis, with his Stetson perched atop his massive frame, he looks all the world like a Texas rancher. No flash, no glamour. Actually, he ain’t no real Texan. He just looks like one. Thinks like one. And writes songs like one. He has enjoyed success as the writer and singer of such well known songs as Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys, Texas (When I Die), The Man That Turned My Mama On and The Last Cowboy Song.

It may surprise some to realise that Ed Bruce has been around the music scene for close on 25 years, but his popularity among ardent followers is now beginning to spread rapidly. He’s been on ten different record labels, with about as many producers, and although he’s been successful as a songwriter, notoriety as a singer and performer has eluded him until fairly recently. But he is not afraid to face up to reality and refuses to blame anyone but himself for past failures. 

 “At times I guess I might have been hard to work with,” he explains. “I'm a bit hard-headed … thought I was better than I really was. But I can say this—I sing better now than I ever did in the past. I’m writing more now than I ever used to. And from a maturity standpoint, I’m now ready for something to happen.”

Ed was born in Keiser, Arkansas. Then his family moved to Memphis, and the good-looking, dark-haired singer claims Tennessee as his home. Having grown up in the city that housed the famous Sun Studios, it was natural that Ed should follow the path that so many Southern boys took to Sam Phillips and a recording career.

He had a brief flirtation with success as a rockabilly artist on Sun Records with two singles, Rock Boppin’ Baby and Sweet Woman, in 1957 and 1958 that for many years have been sought after by rock’n’roll collectors. Another single, Baby That’s Good, was released by Sun in the late 1960s, this being a previously unissued recording. It was as a songwriter that he possibly made his biggest impression whilst with the sun. Well-known artists like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich all recorded his songs, but the teenager wasn’t making enough money to fulfil a full-time career in music.

He did have fun, though. He appeared on the American Bandstand show and for some months he played at the Rebel Club in Oceola, Arkansas, for the door takings. His band at the time featured the legendary Bill Black and Scotty Moore, who had helped to create the early Presley sound, and a horn player called Johnny Cannon, who is perhaps better known as Ace Cannon. Not bad for a 17-year-old kid. But the money just wasn’t enough to live on.

He became a used-car salesman in Memphis, but continued with his music and towards the end of 1959, under the guidance of Jack Clement, who had worked with him on Sun, he recorded one single for RCA, Flight 303, coupled with Spun Gold. The A-side was very much in vogue with the fascination at the time with death songs, and is best likened to Ebony Eyes, a John D. Loudermilk song that was a million-seller for the Everly Brothers.

The early 1960s found Ed trying his luck with pop music, recording a few insignificant singles for Wand Records, a subsidiary of the Scepter label, a New York company that specialised in r&b acts, and was also the label that started the careers of both Ronnie Milsap and B. J. Thomas. Among the self-penned songs he recorded were See The Big Man Cry, later a country hit for Charlie Louvin, and Working Man’s Prayer, one of Ed’s most moving songs, that has since been recorded by Dave Dudley, Tex Ritter and soul singer Arthur Prysock.

Around this time he also wrote the B-side of Tommy Roe’s million-seller Shelia, which was a great financial boost and led him to Nashville for the first time in 1962. He stayed for a year, but things just didn’t work out for him at the time.

“I really didn’t get anything going during that first year in Nashville, Ed recalls. “Or at least that was what I thought at the time. Now, on reflection, I realise some of the friends I made during that period of time, the contacts I made, certainly have helped me since then.”

He returned to Memphis, thinking that maybe his future wasn’t in music at all. He continued to write songs, though, and in August of 1965 he decided to return to Nashville, and this time he was going to stick it out until he made it. One of those old friends, songwriter Marijohn Wilkin, gave Ed his first break in Nashville, inviting him to join the Marijohn Wilkin Singers. Ed sang bass, and the group worked clubs in Nashville and were much in demand at recording sessions. This gave Ed the chance to pitch his songs, and it was Charlie Louvin who first took an Ed Bruce song, See The Big Man Cry, into the country charts in 1965. It made the top ten and led Charlie naming his band The Big Men. Charlie went on to record more of Ed’s songs including Lonesome Is Me and I Forgot To Cry.

This writing success helped Ed to gain a new recording contract with RCA in Nashville during 1967. He was produced by Bob Ferguson and released several singles during the next two years, including minor country hits like Walker Woods, Last Train To Clarksville and Painted Girls And Wine. Most of these recordings were in the folk-country style, which suited Ed perfectly. He was one of the very first people in Nashville to record a Kristofferson song with Shadows Of Her Mind in 1968, and he even put out an album for RCA—IF I COULD JUST GO HOME—but success still eluded him.

The album, which included several of his singles, turned out to be one of the finest folk-country sets of the period. There’s a lonesome, haunting quality to the songs which is appealing, and holds a commanding edge to Ed's mournful, often stodgy tone. For the major part of the album the singer is the winsome master of his winsome material. Where the lyrics fail (I’m Getting Better) the steely music rescues, where the lyrics and music are average, the mood created by producers Bob Ferguson helps out, but when the story line is strong, Ed allows things to build with sensible ease.

It was at this period that Ed became the host of WSM-TV’s The Morning Show. This went out at 6am for five days a week, and Ed was on the show for about three years, Another regular on the show was Britain’s own Pete Sayers. The experience Ed gained on the show was to prove mighty handy a few years later when he became involved in jingles, but at the time he was more interested in trying to get his own singing career off the ground. 

The lack of success on RCA led to Ed changing labels, and towards the end of 1969 he signed with Monument Records. His first two singles, Song For Ginny and Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven, both made the lower reaches of the charts and led to the release of a second album, SHADES OF ED BRUCE. Produced by Fred Foster, this was a richer album, with strings used on several of the tracks, but a few like You’re A Bad Mistake I Made and I Couldn’t Stay For Long had simpler arrangements which suited Ed perfectly. 

It seemed that maybe he was going to make it with Monument, but then in 1970 he decided to quit as a recording artist and performer.

“In the first place I really didn’t come to Nashville to make records. I came to work on my writing. Really I’m sure it was in the back of my mind that if the right opportunity came along and I felt it was, yeah, I’ll take a crack at it. I just really had decided I didn’t want to record for a while, so I asked Monument to let me go. I had decided I was just going to write and not worry about recording. I was gonna wait till I felt like it, till the right situation came along.”

For the next four or five years Ed concentrated on his songwriting and came up with hit songs like The North-East Arkansas Mississippi Country Bootlegger for Kenny Price, The Man That Turned My Mama On for Tanya Tucker, Too Much Love Between Us for Kitty Wells, and Restless, the song that set Crystal Gayle on the road to success. 

During this period he also became heavily involved in doing regular commercials for National TV for a variety of products like Ultrabrite Toothpaste, Schlitz Malt Liqor and Pan-Am Airlines. To begin with Ed was used as just a jingle singer, but his earlier television experience on WSM-TV led to him handling announcements, and in the mid-1970s he landed his most important advertising project when he was asked to do commercials for the Tennessee State Tourism Board.

It all began in 1974 when Ed made three 60-second radio spots promoting tourism in Tennessee. Then the State mounted an intensive campaign to attract tourist dollars into the State and Ed Bruce, inviting the tourists in a coonskin cap and a voice that can only be described as deep and rich, became The Tennessean. The commercials became familiar to millions of people and started off a whole new career for the singer.

“It was coincidental that I happened to fit the image of what they wanted for The Tennessean,” explains Bruce. “Originally the programme started out as a tourist attraction pilot. Then it moved in the mood of industrial development. It has been an impressive campaign.”

Soon Ed was doing more than just inviting tourists to Tennessee. Dressed in his 'Davy Crockett’ outfit, he became involved in industrial developments; this entailed riding in helicopters, cruising down the Cumberland River on a barge, and posing in parks and industrial settings.

“Although I was born in Arkansas, I consider myself a Tennessean,” he says. “I'm proud of Tennessee. I feel as strongly about the state as I could, I think some of the prettiest country in the world is right here in Tennessee. It’s really three separate states. You've got almost three different topographical areas in one state is good too. They have a helpful nature. Tennessee just feels goof to me.”

Through the Tennessean advertising campaign, Ed became involved with The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibition Association. It was decided to make use of a Tennessee Walking Horse in the publicity programmes, and Ed was pictured with the horse at home in the scenic Tennessee countryside and in the busy cities. He certainly surprised the people at the Association who were expecting some city dude to turn up just to have pictures taken standing by the horse. Not Ed! He became attached to the horse, a chestnut mare named Tennessee Traveller, and took over the grooming and feeding, and would be up almost everyday at 6am to go riding. 

“I remember from my childhood the Memphis Police Department having a mounted patrol,” recalls Ed. “I have learned they used Tennessee Walking Horses, and now I know why. Eight hours in the saddle is a long time, and the walker has to be the most comfortable horse I’ve even been on. The Walking Horse’s combination of beauty, size, strength, speed and stamina, I believe, make it the finest horse in the world.”

If you have a copy of Ed’s album, THE TENNESSEAN, you'll find him riding the Tennessee Traveller in the photo on the back sleeve. But Ed’s not only been involved in The Tennessean advertising campaign. A few years ago he worked on a commercial film for Cummins Engine Company, which led to him writing and singing a CB jingle, Mummin’ Cummins. The whole song was written in CB slang, extolling the virtues of ‘reserve power for passin’ so your rig don’t lag or stall’ and the joys of being a trucker. The song was delivered in that deep drawling voice of Ed’s, who took the CB handle ‘Mama’s Cowboy.’
“You just can’t understand those guys,” says Ed. “They don’t speak English. Man, you should hear ‘em late at night when they get to talkin’. Recording the commercial was fun—it was just like writing a hit song—you need a good catch phrase—like hummin’ Cummins—a hook line. But then don’t beat it to death.”

Ed knows all about hook lines and how to use them. His most memorable songs have good hooks, and it was his success as a writer during the early 1970s that led to him signing a recording contract with United Artists in 1973. His first single, Good Jelly Jones, missed out altogether, but the next one, July, You’re A Woman, an exciting mid-tempo love song from the pen of John Stewart, brought him back to the country charts around Christmastime 1973. Then his third UA single, The Devil Ain’t A Lonely Woman’s Friend, failed to make an impression and once again Ed was without a recording contract. 

Not long after that Ed came up with his classic song Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys, the tune that brought him back to United Artists and gave him his biggest hit during the summer of 1975.

“At the time I wrote it I was not on a label. I’d been on UA and asked to get off the label so I could start writing. I had the hook line: ‘Mama’s don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys’ and ‘they’ll never stay at home,’ etc., ‘always alone’. I’ve been asked a lot of times where I got the idea, but I just don’t know. I finished the chorus, and the first verse came fairly easily. But I sat on it for a couple of weeks and I knew what sort of direction I wanted to take, but it was not really finished, and Patsy (his wife) and I just sat on the couch one night and she pulled the song out of me. I’d get her to talk about the she felt I was developing it, and that’s how we finished it.”

It turned out to be one of those magic songs, an instant classic, a perfect song, the kind of song that every songwriter wishes he had written. Mamas is really the sort of song that not only described its authors, but its audience as well. The song described Ed Bruce and fitted a growing breed of people in the States. Though Ed enjoyed a top twenty hit with the song in 1975, it was of course the Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson version three years later which really established the song, taking it to the top of the country charts.

“I was still friends with Larry Butler (staff producer at UA), and I’d go by the office—it was a good gathering place for a group of friends, Paul Richey, me, Butler, Bob Montgomery, Bob Moore, Roger Bowling, and maybe we’d have a couple of drinks and discuss songs and the business in general. One of those afternoons I was in there after I’d finished the song, and I said: ‘Hey I wanna play something for you’ and I started doing it, and everybody just starting coming up on the edge of their seats, and the first I knew, they were singing along with the chorus.”

“I thought when we finished writing it that if we were ever going to write for me, that was it. So Patsy and I got to a studio and called the pickers and booked the session and did it.”

The record took a little while climbing the charts, possibly because UA didn’t get as much behind it as they should have done, but it marked the return of Ed Bruce to recording, and a couple more hits with The Littlest Cowboy Rides Again and For Love’s Own Sake led to the release of the UA album ED BRUCE. For this comeback album, Ed cut out the pop/MOR style of his Monument records, and got back to a more basic country sound. With people like Bobby Thompson (banjo and guitar), Pete Drake (steel), Dave Kirby (guitar) and Hargus Robbins (piano), the singer presented a sturdy collection that encompassed gospel (Mose Rankin), cowboy tunes (Streets Of Laredo) and some strong stories (The Migrant and Workingman’s Prayer). 

His final single for UA was Sleep All Mornin’, an Alex Harvey song, in the autumn of 1976. He then signed with Epic Records, and though he released a bunch of good singles and two excellent albums, he didn’t exactly set the country world alight. He was being produced by Buddy Killen and came up with some gems like the autobiographical Old Wore Out Cowboy, the commercially slanted Angeline, which reached the middle of the charts at the beginning of 1979 but, being his final Epic release, received little promotion. 

For a while it looked like Ed Bruce was set to fade from the scene, but throughout 1979 he was busy writing and recording, and in the early months of 1980 he signed a recording contract with MCA. This turned out to be just the right move, and within weeks he was rapidly climbing the country charts with Diane, a Ronnie Rogers’ song that perfectly suited the laid-back, easy Ed Bruce style.

This success led to the release of the album ED BRUCE, which was the one LP set to establish the singer-songwriter as an important name within country music. Producer Tommy West didn’t take him too far away from the basic Ed Bruce style, which does tend towards sameness. The story lines carry the album, however, and song like Girls, Women And Ladies, The Last Cowboy Song (featuring guest vocals from Willie Nelson) and Love Ain’t Something I Can Do Alone showed just what a fine and sensitive songwriter Ed Bruce really is.

The past two years have seen him regularly in the charts. He's not made that all-important chart-topping breakthrough, but songs like Evil Angel, (When You Fall In Love) Everything’s A Waltz and The Last Cowboy Song have all helped to put the name and voice of Ed Bruce up front. Although operating in the same way as Waylon Jennings, the inevitable tag of imitator will, one hopes, be avoided by Ed’s ability to write songs with an accessible humility sometimes missing from Waylon’s work.

Recently the singer had branched out into acting. It all began of course with the television commercials, which led to a role in the made-for-TV film The Chisholms. This resulted in him gaining a co-starring role alongside James Garner in the new Brett Maverick TV series. Bruce plays the part of Sheriff Guthrie, a good guy who loses his bid for re-election in the corrupt western town of Sweetwater, and so becomes ex-Sheriff Guthrie, and is hired by Maverick to run the Red Ox Saloon.

Just prior to being signed to the new TV series, Ed had formed his own touring band, The Tennessee Cowboy Band, with brothers Tom Johnson on guitar and Jimmie Johnson on bass, Mark Ellerby on drums, Swain Schafer on piano and Ronnie Rogers on guitar and vocals. I just hope that the new-found fame as an actor doesn’t interfere too much with Ed’s career as a singer and songwriter. After more than 20 years of hanging in there, he has finally made it, and to throw all the  hard work away on a short-lived acting career would be a waste. Hopefully, with Ed and his wife Patsy already heavily involved in music, they will get their priorities right.

Ed Bruce Albums 
If I Could Just Go Home – RCA LSP – 3948 (USA - deleted) 
Shades Of Ed Bruce – Monument SLP 18118 (USA) LM 05032 (UK)
Ed Bruce – United Artists LA 613-G (USA deleted)
The Tennessean – Epic KE – 35043 (USA) 
Cowboys And Dreamers – Epic KE – 35541 (USA)
Ed Bruce – MCA – 3242 (USA)
One To One – MCA – 5188 (USA)