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38 years after premiere, 'Urban Cowboy' still a Texas original

Dave Thomas
Lone Star longnecks aren't the hottest thing around now, and Gilley's is long gone, but there was a time when both were key components of the 'Urban Cowboy' crazy.

Country music has been going all to hell ever since the first notes drifted out of Tennessee. Whether it was Ray Price’s strings, Kris Kristofferson’s bawdy croak, Garth Brook’s slick pop or whatever the heck Florida Georgia Line is, somebody, somewhere thinks country music sure ain’t what it used to be.

Right in the middle of those four examples came the “Urban Cowboy” craze, fostered by the movie that came out 38 years ago today. Inspired by John Travolta and Debra Winger, would-be Buds and Sissys flocked to urban dance halls to drink longnecks and two-step in fancified country apparel and cowboy hats with crowns so tall, those poor birds couldn’t help but fly into them.

(What? You mean … they put those feathers on their cowboy hats on purpose? But … why?)

Here’s a few facts about the movie and the music that it inspired.

  1. The movie was based on Aaron Latham's Esquire Magazine story "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit.” Latham would go on to write the screenplay for the film.

  2. The honky-tonk in the movie was a real-life club in Pasadena. Gilley’s opened in 1971 and was popular before “Urban Cowboy” and just off the charts for awhile afterward. By the late 1980s, co-founders Mickey Gilley and Sherwood Cryer were feuding and Gilley’s burned down in 1990.

  3. The soundtrack for the movie was so successful, it is credited with pushing country music in a new direction. The movie made a star out of Mickey Gilley, but no other artist is as associated with the new sound as Kenny Rogers.

  4. In an interview with Rolling Stone, actor Barry Corbin, says he didn’t like what “Urban Cowboy” did to the bar where he was a regular — even though he had a prominent role in the film. “It became something entirely different when that movie came out," Corbin said. "It became a tourist attraction, mecca. All that place was a beer joint, it's all it was."

  5. The movie could have featured Dennis Quaid and Sissy Spacek in the lead roles — which would have made “Urban Cowboy” more authentically Texan, at least.

  6. “Urban Cowboy” spawned its own fashion trend — which became quite trendy, indeed. Andy Warhol and Diane von Furstenburg attended the premiere in Houston, and later, Texas Monthly would describe “gaudy Texas chic” and “$32,000 diamond-beaded hatbands” in a 35-year look-back.

  7. In that same Texas Monthly article, John Travolta explains how “Urban Cowboy” became so popular — it offered an immersive experience: “You could watch it, and then you could go experience it. You could buy a cowboy hat, get on a mechanical bull, go country dancing. You could live this movie.”