The Sharon Vaughn-Penned Song Waylon Jennings Recorded First and Willie Nelson Took to No. 1, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”

In 1976, Waylon Jennings recorded Sharon Vaughn’s song “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” for his compilation Wanted! The Outlaws, but never released it as a single. Vaughn originally wrote the song when her then-boyfriend, Bill Rice, asked her to write a cowboy song for Bobby Bare. When Bare turned it down, Jennings grabbed it.

A year later, Willie Nelson recorded the song for the 1979 film The Electric Horseman, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Nelson’s version went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

Videos by American Songwriter

Sydney Pollack’s Production

Legendary director Sydney Pollack produced the track for Nelson and added trumpets, harps, and French horns to the country song.

“He did have some good ideas,” said Nelson of Pollack’s arrangement. “Also David Grusin, the musical director, I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but David is a very good musician. And I’m sure that if he heard this horn or that horn in there, he’d go ahead and put it in, regardless of whether it was a country song or not. David heard all these things and said they should go in there. Sydney was smart enough to leave ’em in.”

[RELATED: The Rocky Outlaw “Marriage” of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings]

‘Cowboy Ways’

In the song, Nelson sings of the cowboys he looked up to as a kid and how he dreamed of becoming one, despite the miserable conditions of living such a life.

I grew up dreamin’ of bein’ a cowboy
And lovin’ the cowboy ways
Pursuin’ the life of my high-ridin’ heroes
I burned up my childhood days
I learned all the rules of a modern-day drifter
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long
Just take what you need from the ladies, then leave them
Were the words of a sad country song

My heroes have always been cowboys
And they still are, it seems
Sadly, in search of, took one step in back of
Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams

Cowboys are special with their own brand of misery
From bein’ alone too long
You can die from the cold in the arms of a night, man
Knowin’ well that your best days are gone

Pickin’ up hookers instead of my pen
I let the words of my youth fade away
Old worn-out saddles, and old worn-out memories
But no one and no place to stay

After “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” went to No. 1, Columbia released Willie’s version of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” which was also featured in the film and peaked at No. 6. The Electric Horseman soundtrack also featured Nelson and Jennings classic duet “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”

Willie Nelson’s Acting Debut

The Electric Horseman also marked Nelson’s acting debut. In the romantic Western, Nelson plays Wendell Hickson, an old cowboy who offers some advice to the has-been rodeo star Sonny Steele (Redford), who is performing shows in Vegas, wearing a suit covered in lights on stage with his horse, The Rising Star.

Vaughn’s Big Hit

“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” was Vaughn’s first big success as a songwriter. She also had hits with the Oak Ridge Boys’ 1977 song “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” which went to No. 5, and went on to work with more country artists, including Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis, and Patty Loveless.

Vaughn also lived in Sweden for many years before moving to Nashville in 2020 and has also worked with dozens of international acts, including No. 1 hits for Swedish pop artists Agnes and Ola.

She was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

4 Grunge and Post-Grunge One-Hit Wonders From the 90s

3 Female-Fronted Rock Bands from the 1990s Whose Music Has Stood the Test of Time