The continuing impact of Urban Cowboy, the movie that brought country and pop music together

click to enlarge Mickey Gilley in Urban Cowboy
Mickey Gilley in Urban Cowboy

1980 was a confusing time for America. A Southern Christian farmer was president — and a Democrat! — but he was about to be supplanted by a California politician tight with Hollywood — and a Republican!

Somewhere in the same Hollywood that spawned Ronald Reagan, film biz execs decided the next natural move for actor John Travolta, following the monster hits Saturday Night Fever (in which he played a disco-crazed Brooklyn hunk) and Grease (playing a car-crazed high school hunk), was to put him on a mechanical bull, slap on a cowboy hat and have him dance at a honky-tonk to a then-new amalgam of pop and country music.

Remarkably, that film, Urban Cowboy, worked much like they thought it would. While the movie didn't gross nearly as much as Travolta's previous hits, it was the 13th highest-grossing flick of 1980, coming in ahead of movies now considered classics by many: The Shining, Caddyshack, Raging Bull. And Travolta's star remained ascendant for the time being; that wouldn't end until his unfortunate Saturday Night Fever sequel, the Sylvester Stallone-directed Staying Alive, a couple years later. That movie was so bad it couldn't even sniff "so-bad-it's-good" levels.

Urban Cowboy's plot revolves around Travolta's Bud, who moves in with some Houston relatives to work on an oil rig and spends his nights at Gilley's, a football field-sized bar where mechanical bull competitions are the only thing to compete with two-stepping on the dancefloor, where Wrangler butts drive nearly everyone nuts. Bud meets the sassy Sissy (Debra Winger) at Gilley's, they marry quickly and immediately start fighting and cheating on each other, their romantic travails ultimately sorted out through a combination of mechanical bull-riding, armed robbery and dismaying domestic abuse. I told you 1980 was a confusing time!

Urban Cowboy did more than establish Travolta's box-office drawing power, Debra Winger's reputation as a relatable leading lady or the fact that Scott Glenn could rock an all-mesh shirt. It also helped launch the era when country music and pop music blended into sounds pleasing to fans of both genres — an evolution that led to massive success a decade later for folks like Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks and is still being felt in the crossover appeal of artists like Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves.

The Urban Cowboy soundtrack aimed to do for country what Saturday Night Fever did for disco, and I'd argue it actually did it better. While people were actively revolted by the sounds of the Bee Gees a few years after disco's zenith, pop-country has never really gone away since the Urban Cowboy days.

Mickey Gilley was the piano-playing smoothie who owned the real-life Gilley's featured in the movie, and his mix of covers ("Stand by Me," "Orange Blossom Special") dotted the double-album and renewed his standing as a country headliner. Soundtrack organizers blended rock artists like Bob Seger and the Eagles (doing country-leaning tunes) with straight-up country cats like Kenny Rogers and Charlie Daniels Band and pop balladeers like Anne Murray and Boz Scaggs. Between May and August 1980, no less than five singles from Urban Cowboy landed on the pop singles chart, glutting Casey Kasem's American Top 40 with more twang than it had ever seen. The soundtrack sold more than 2 million copies just that summer.

That kind of instant success has consequences, of course. Mechanical bulls became common in bars across the country for a while and a whole lot of city folk started buying cowboy hats. While both those trends receded, pop-country remains a massive part of the music business. And some people still have fond memories of the Urban Cowboy music, too, as a show partnering Mickey Gilley with fellow soundtrack chart-topper Johnny Lee ("Lookin' for Love") sold out weeks in advance for Coeur d'Alene Casino — a mere 38 years after the fact. ♦

The Urban Cowboy Reunion with Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee and T.G. Sheppard • Thu, April 26 at 7 pm • Sold out • Coeur d'Alene Casino • 37914 S. Nukwalqw Rd., Worley, Idaho • • 800-523-2464

Keola Beamer & Henry Kapono @ Bing Crosby Theater

Fri., Jan. 28, 8 p.m.
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About The Author

Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the managing editor of the Inlander, where he oversees coverage of arts and culture. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine, The Oregonian and KUER-FM. He grew up seeing the country in an Air Force family and studied...