Mickey Gilley remembers the music and fashion of ‘URBAN COWBOY’ on its 40th anniversary

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Preston Barta // Film Critic

At the time of filming, nobody could have truly predicted how massive 1980’s Urban Cowboy would later become. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this month, the movie featuring John Travolta, a honky-tonk and Western attire affair, was helped in large part by country music that makes you want to strut your stuff. Soon, everyone around cooled their Saturday night fever by tucking away their disco getups to embrace the Western-style clothing of Urban Cowboy, whether they had soaked up the ranch life or were cowpoke wannabes. 

“It, no doubt, changed the dress scene. Anywhere you’d go, you see people wearing cowboy hats, boots, Western shirts, jeans, and thick silver belt buckles,” musician Mickey Gilley said in a phone interview to promote the first-ever Blu-ray release of Urban Cowboy

The film was adapted from a 1978 Esquire magazine story about the real-life tale of two regulars at Gilley’s Club – a honky-tonk bar in Pasadena, Texas co-owned by Gilley and his producer Sherwood Cryer. The action of the film was set in Gilley’s, where guests spent their nights and money drinking, dancing and riding the bar’s famed mechanical bull. Gilley, a cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis, invested in the night club with his business partner when his music career faltered. 

When Urban Cowboy premiered, it helped to revive Gilley’s career and deployed him with the likes of Travolta, Debra Winger and Scott Glenn. 

“When Travolta and [his character’s uncle, played by Barry Corbin] first walk into the club, I’m at the keyboard, singing ‘Honky Tonk Wine.’ If you notice, I’m not even wearing a cowboy hat because I wasn’t into the Western-wear type of thing. After Urban Cowboy came out, however, everything changed,” the country music legend said enthusiastically. “It was so hot that I bought a cowboy hat and started wearing it. [This attention] carried all the way over into the ‘90s. Artists like Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn were wearing cowboy hats during their shows. It’s just something that caught and has been around for some time.” 

Not only did Urban Cowboy ignite a fashion movement, but it also helped catapult country music back to the forefront of American culture. Country music began receiving the mainstream recognition that it had been shy of, even if it was the native music of many a rural American. Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love,” from the film’s soundtrack, was an immediate hit, reaching No. 1 on the country singles chart. 

Mickey Gilley’s life changes when ‘URBAN COWBOY’ popularized his real-life bar, Gilley’s in a drama about working class Texans trying to eek out a living on the Houston Ship Channel. Courtesy photo.

“We had people like Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, and the late Kenny Rogers who did the music for the soundtrack. Low and behold, all these conversations started happening about the Urban Cowboy music,” Gilley said.

In a 15-minute interview among the Blu-ray bonus features, Gilley humorously notes how “everyone has a little cowboy in them,” and we tune into songs about “drinking, fighting and cheating” because that’s what country music is all about. Although a significant portion of the country music library pays tribute to the rugged lifestyle of rural patriots, there’s also been some quality love songs born out of the genre. 

“If you go back and listen now to some of those songs, like Kenny Rogers’ ‘Through the Years,’ they are beautiful songs. The same thing with Anne Murray’s ‘Could I Have This Dance’ and Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Darlin.’ They have great music in it,” Gilley said. “I sang ‘Stand By Me,’ and Johnny Lee had ‘Lookin’ for Love.’ How many times do people go to these clubs looking for love and companions they can stand next to? It’s about everyday life.” 

The spotlight from the film undoubtedly pulled Gilley and his nightclub into it as well. After Urban Cowboy’s release, it transformed the one-time local honky-tonk into a cultural palace where folks from all over flocked to test out their new denim and leather accessories. Additionally, everyone wanted to see the man behind the club’s name. 

“When the film came out, my life changed totally ten-point in time because, for the first time in my life, I got to play all the showrooms in Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City. I mean, the main showrooms. Me and Johnny Lee were two of the hottest acts of country music in the ‘80s,” Gilley said. 

About three years ago, Gilley and Johnny Lee got together for a reunion tour and still saw tremendous success. They would each play their hits and would do the songs from Urban Cowboy for the grand finale. 

“We’ve been very fortunate to have audiences in the casinos we would play and still have people relate to the music. It’s been a big impact on my life. To be 84 years old and have people come out to hear you perform the songs –– it’s just a treat,” Gilley said. 

‘URBAN COWBOY’ was celebrated for the way it sketched the lives of blue collar workers sweating on petrochemical plants, but it’s perhaps best remembered for the real-life Pasadena, Texas honky tonk, Gilley’s, which popularized the mechanical bull. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Evolution certainly follows a pattern in plenty of music genres, and country music is no different. The modernization of studio and concert production disrupted the genre’s status quo. Over time, country artists redefined what country superstardom looked like with flashier music videos, amplifying their backbeats, and staging arena rock shows with energy that could put the Energizer bunny on overload mode. 

“You have to applaud the people who can fill a football stadium. But I don’t understand it. I listen to old-time country music, prime country tunes. I like old music, but I am old,” Gilley joked. “It’s one of those things where the young people like what they’re presenting now. I don’t put anyone down for doing that. I can’t fill up a football stadium. But I’ve had a great time and a great ride.” 

Discover more exciting stories from Gilley on the anniversary release of Urban Cowboy from Paramount, such as Gilley’s then-mother-in-law cooking dinner for Travolta one night and how the two took a flying lesson together while filming, much to the chagrin of the studio. The now-available special edition also contains a sleek new cardboard slipcover, several deleted scenes, previously released outtakes and rehearsals.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.