Urban Cowboy Era: Launching country music into new territory
By Cillea Houghton
When the film “Urban Cowboy” made its debut in 1980, no one knew the impact it would have on country music. But when John Travolta and Debra Winger two-stepped onto the dance floor of Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas, little did the country music world know the result would be a new movement and wave of young country fans.
The film follows the troubled love story of Travolta’s Bud Davis and Winger’s Sissy who meet, fall in love and marry at the Pasadena honky-tonk staple of Gilley’s nightclub. The couple has their struggles, with Bud wanting Sissy to fulfill a more traditional gender role, in addition to lashing out verbally and physically toward her. The abusive Wes Hightower, played by Scott Glenn, makes his way into the story and causes tension between the country lovebirds, ultimately tearing them apart, but in the end, Bud and Sissy find their way back to each other and manage to have a happy ending. But a key factor to this happy ending is the mechanical bull, which both Bud and Wes compete to ride on and win a $5,000 prize. In the end, Bud proves victorious, and after realizing his love for Sissy and an altercation with Wes, our star couple reconciles.
But perhaps what is more important than the plotline, or even film icon Travolta in the lead role, was the mechanical bull and the cowboy fashion that had a commanding presence within the film – and ultimately had the same effect on country music. Serving as the central location of the film, Gilley’s was home to numerous bars and mechanical bulls, creating a honky-tonk atmosphere like none other.
At the center of this phenomenon were Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee, two singers who had already made a name for themselves in country music and whose star power would increase exponentially due to the film. Gilley’s namesake was at the forefront of “Urban Cowboy,” as the story took place inside his Texas club. He recalls a time when he was on an airplane with his business partner prior to the film’s creation, who referenced an article in Esquire magazine that was all about the urban cowboy style. Gilley was not a fan of the piece, as he believed it reflected the style in a negative light, but he learned that plans were being made to make a film about it.
And when they found out his club was being considered as the central location, Gilley admits he was not confident in seeing it all come to fruition, with his business partner saying that if they did in fact make the film, the club would change forever. “You know what? He was 100 percent correct,” Gilley said of the film’s impact on the club. “The film came out [and] that club changed overnight. It was unbelievable. It stayed packed for about three-and-a- half to four years. You’re talking about a windfall?! I’d never seen anything like it.”
After the film’s release, Gilley found himself riding on his intense success, accomplishing every feat from performing in major showrooms in Las Vegas to entertaining the President of the United States and earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “When John Travolta did the film down in Gilley’s in 1979 and ‘80, it launched me and Johnny Lee into the stratosphere,” Gilley said about the film’s impact on his career. “It changed my life totally. I know it impacted my life and Johnny Lee’s because it made Johnny Lee a star.” Prior to the creation of “Urban Cowboy,” Gilley had hits with songs like “Room Full of Roses” and “She’s Pulling me Back,” along with cover versions of songs like “City Lights,” “Window Up Above” by George Jones and more.
But the success of the John Travolta film breathed new life into Gilley’s career, offering rejuvenation in a way that something else couldn’t have. His remake of Ben E. King’s classic “Stand by Me” was the singer’s first step into crossover stardom, hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart and making it to the top of multiple other music charts. Featured on the “Urban Cowboy” soundtrack, the song has become a staple in Gilley’s catalog. But his success doesn’t stop there. A handful of other releases, including “Room Full of Roses,” found themselves charting, with several hitting the No. 1 spot, all thanks to the film.
Right there with Gilley was Lee, who earned just as much success with his breakout hit, “Lookin’ for Love,” the token love song for Bud and Sissy as it can be heard playing as they fall in love on the dance floor at Gilley’s and as they drive off together in reconciliation as the ending credits roll. Much like “Stand by Me,” “Lookin’ for Love” became a hit for both the film’s soundtrack and Lee’s career, making the Top 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart and hitting No. 1 on the Hot Country Singles Chart. Between the song and the film, Lee was also launched into superstardom, calling them a dream come true. “I’d been looking for that song, trying to write that song my whole life up to that point,” Lee said of the track. “It was a dream come true to me because I’d been working my whole life with hopes to travel on the road and go sing in front of thousands of people that I’d never seen before in places I’d never been.”
While the film had considerable impact on the legacies of Gilley and Lee, it also made a significant impression on country music itself, with Lee saying that “Urban Cowboy” brought in a whole new legion of fans to the genre. “What it did was brought a whole new crowd of country music fans that never were into country music before,” Lee said. “Nashville has always been Nashville and music’s been changing ever since music started…When we did the ‘Urban Cowboy’ movie, I mean it just gave it a B12 shot. All of a sudden, everybody was wearing cowboy hats and designer jeans and buying boots and riding bulls. It was a big movement.”
“I think it introduced the type of music from the soundtrack to a younger set of people who made country music bigger,” Gilley agreed. “The bottom line was, I think John Travolta did a lot for the country music scene because he introduced the type of music from the soundtrack that’s in ‘Urban Cowboy.’”
And broaden the country music spectrum it did. Western fashion staples from the film, including cowboy hats, boots and rhinestone belts took off like crazy, and mechanical bull riding became the new hot activity. “I think what caught on was the combination of the music and the movie,” Lee said about why he feels the “Urban Cowboy” movement caught on like wildfire after the film’s release. “And John Travolta and Debra Winger really knocked it out of the park. It was cast perfectly. This came along at the right time—it just was meant to be, I guess.”
Gilley gives all the credit to Travolta, saying that his star power after just coming off the success of “Saturday Night Fever” influenced a new crowd of young fans to emulate the look and lifestyle the film portrays, referring to a time when he met a man on an elevator in Nashville who thanked Gilley for what he did for Western wear. “You need to thank John Travolta,” Gilley replied. “He’s the one that did it. I was along for the ride.”
Though the film was released 36 years ago, the impact it created still has relevance today. Mechanical bulls are still a mainstay in honky-tonks across the country, not to mention how “Urban Cowboy” managed to open up the doors of country music to a younger audience that may not have been turned on to the genre without the film’s presence.
“It definitely moved it [country music] forward. Country music had a certain audience that was listening to it and when ‘Urban Cowboy’ came out— let’s face it, thousands and thousands of people got turned on to country music that never was into country music before,” Lee said. “Music’s been changing ever since it started. It’s something that came along at the right time, and it worked.” He also adds that it set the stage for country superstar Garth Brooks, who is another example of a new act that changed the face of country music and happened to come along at the right time.
Vice President of ASCAP Ralph Murphy agrees. “It threw the spotlight on Nashville,” Murphy said of the film’s influence on Music City. “Suddenly those country songs were resonating worldwide and really focused everybody on Nashville.” Murphy also explained how, while it was a film with a strong country vibe, it didn’t necessarily feature all country songs on its soundtrack, a sentiment echoed by Gilley. The soundtrack included songs by artists like Boz Scaggs and Anne Murray, with the former performing “Look What You’ve Done to Me” and the latter singing “Could I Have This Dance.”
A similar effect is happening today in country music, with many artists in the genre incorporating elements that branch outside the traditional country sound, much like what occurred in “Urban Cowboy.” Gilley draws comparisons from the fact that the style that became a craze because of “Urban Cowboy” is similar to what’s happening now in country music. “If you go back to the ‘80s and you look at what happened, and now you look at the present time where all these guys are wearing cowboy hats and doing their thing with a guitar, it reflects back to the fact that John Travolta introduced the kind of music to the younger set that loved the kind of music that we represent,” he said, citing current artists like Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney as examples. ” I think that the ‘Urban Cowboy’ thing is what introduced the younger people to that kind of music…and the young people started coming out and listening to them and I think the ‘Urban Cowboy’ had a lot to do with what it did for the music industry.”
Lee also revealed that the film’s soundtrack is as popular today as it was in the ‘80s, helping to pave the way for future artists and creating a lasting legacy. “I think it opened the doors for a lot of artists, the style of music,” he said. “That soundtrack today will stand up to any music that’s been recorded, even to this day. It’s still a great movie. People still like to see it. People still love the music from that, and that’s been a long time ago. For it to withhold the test of time like it has, it’s quite an accomplishment.”