The Unbroken Circle: Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson – “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (1978)

The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where we discuss classic country songs

Iconic as they are individually, when you think of Waylon Jennings, you think of Willie Nelson, and when you think of Willie Nelson, you think of Waylon Jennings. Either way, you also think of outlaw country, a sub-genre that, while fostering a distinctly hard-edged country-rock sound, was formed more as a way of capturing how both artists – and, later, others – had found country music’s mainstream too limiting in their own ways and had demanded greater artistic control in the studio.

We’ve already sketched Nelson’s path to stardom elsewhere, and while he looked to Texas for inspiration on how to make it in Nashville, Jennings looked even farther. You’d think an artist who became roommates with Johnny Cash upon his move to Nashville would have the story written for him right then and there, but in truth, it’s a tad more complicated. Like Nelson, Jennings found early success in Nashville, through RCA Records, though as a solo artist and not as a writer, unlike Nelson. Early top ten hits included late ‘60s gems like “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” and “The Chokin’ Kind,” and “MacArthur Park” even won a Grammy; all on top of the fact that he also starred in the 1966 movie Nashville Rebel.

Still, he felt his label’s practices were too controlling over what he wanted to do, and the staff mostly felt the same way, given that staff producer Danny Davis found Jennings’ drug-induced, erratic behavior counterproductive to the recording process. A solution that worked for both of them came when Jennings hired New York rock-oriented manager Neil Reshen, who opened the door for Jennings to spotlight his talents elsewhere, including high-profile rock venues like Max’s Kansas City nightclub in New York. And in the studio, Jennings enjoyed what rock groups had for years – greater creative control, including the right to choose his own material, studios, and session musicians. The greater control contributed to landmark collections like 1973’s Lonesome, On’ry and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes, but the sales didn’t initially reflect why Jennings should have had creative control all along. And while there wasn’t quite a name for the actual music yet, because of his rebellious actions, Jennings was known as an outlaw to Nashville, and Nelson was known as something similar in Texas. In 1975, Jennings won the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year Award, but by 1976, his account with RCA was $1 million in the red.

So, what changed? Well, another album was released in 1976 that finally gave Jennings his big breakthrough and finally gave a name to the music he’d been making. It also became a breakthrough collection for Nelson, and for Jennings’ wife, Jessi Colter, along with Tompall Glaser. Wanted! The Outlaws was merely a compilation effort made through past recordings by every aforementioned artist, but with the right push and marketing, it became the album of its era to connect with country and rock fans, becoming the first album in country music history to reach platinum status.

On one hand, Jennings and Nelson now sold albums in numbers associated with rock acts, and Nashville began gradually moving away from a producer-dominated order to one in which the artists held the power. On the other hand, Jennings and Nelson became somewhat linked as a buddy act, still finding success on their own terms, but also through collaborations in “Good Hearted Woman” and even Jennings’ own “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” which slyly referenced and then featured Nelson as somewhat of a surprise guest.

It would, however, be their 1978 collaboration “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” that would forever link the two as synonymous with one another as cultural icons, a Grammy-winning effort that sported one of the most iconic title hooks in all of country music.

Funnily enough, it, too, was a buddy anthem formed by two friends of the highest level, even if their original intentions with it were far more different. You may recognize the husband-and-wife duo of songwriters behind the song from even just this year. Ed Bruce passed away in January, and Patsy Bruce joined him just four months later, in May. Ed was more of a songwriter, while Patsy was more business-oriented – though it is worth noting that their other iconic writing collaboration was for Tanya Tucker’s “Texas (When I Die).”

Like Jennings and Nelson, Ed could relate to the struggles of trying to make it in Nashville in the late ‘60s. His first charting record came through 1967’s “Walker’s Woods” for, ironically enough, RCA, but he bounced around early on to record for Monument, United Artists, Epic, MCA, and then back to RCA, all while finding little follow-up success along the way. Unlike the career rejuvenation that came for both Jennings and Nelson in the early-to-mid ‘70s, Bruce was still spinning his wheels as a recording artist. He found slight success as a songwriter, but nothing substantial. Patsy managed to help him find work in commercials to help pay the bills, but at this point, he was 35 years old and felt past his prime. He already recorded for many labels and opened for some of country music’s biggest acts out on the road, but he still felt like he had nothing to show for his time spent. So, like any artist who’s experienced what feels like a bitter taste of defeat in Nashville, he took to music to communicate his feelings.

That autobiographical song started as “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Guitar Players,” a much blunter communication compared to the finished product, sporting a first verse and chorus that directly mimicked Ed’s own experiences in Nashville. The thing is, it stopped there, as if there was nothing more to say and the inspiration wasn’t there to further fuel the fire. Patsy reportedly believed it was never initially finished because Ed didn’t realize how autobiographical the song would actually become, and then when he realized it, it was as if the rest of the song just wouldn’t come.

It was also Patsy that suggested changing the title hook to something else, given that not many fans would be able to directly relate to a broke-down musician who failed to achieve his dreams, even if the core sentiment was still relatable. “Cowboys” made more sense to her, given their influence as the childhood heroes of many fans – country or otherwise – and how they were typically seen as the most romantic of all of country music’s icons.

And thus, the song was born, though not in the way we know it today. Ed managed to convince United Artists to sign him to a new contract to record the song, and they did. It reached the top 20, giving Ed his biggest hit yet by a significant margin … though the follow-up single failed to reach the top 30, and pretty soon he was right back at square one. He went back to commercials, and for a few years the Bruces simply hung on trying to make it. They finally found their break, when Jennings decided to record their song.

Of course, it wasn’t ready to release as a single in its initial state. Jennings felt his initial recording was a bit dry, so the solution came in bringing on Nelson and re-cutting the song as a duet. Not only did its success eclipse that of their other aforementioned duets, it also finally cast a spotlight on Ed, who had now become recognized within Nashville for his rugged look as a potential cowboy star. In more ways than one, too, given that he was approached to appear in the television program Bret Maverick, and that MCA signed him to a new contract. And this time around, Ed enjoyed a total of 13 top 20 singles, including a lone No. 1 in 1981, “You’re the Best Break This Old Heart Ever Had.”

Ed and Patsy would divorce in later years, but they both reaped the benefits of their iconic song’s success, both as a country song and as a cultural icon. The tune did, after all, also reach No. 42 on the pop charts, in addition to its stature as a No. 1 country hit. It wouldn’t be the last time Jennings and Nelson recorded together, either – from “Just to Satisfy You” to their cover of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” to even forming the Highwaymen collective with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, many of the genre’s most iconic recordings formed by simply coming together.

The ultimate lesson, then? Mamas, let your babies grow up to be whatever they want to be. Chances are, they’ll find their own way, all in due time.

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