40 Years Later, Country Owes a Lot to 'Urban Cowboy': Here's Why

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Travolta as the titular character, atop a mechanical bull, in 'Urban Cowboy.'

Forty years ago, the soundtrack to 'Urban Cowboy' made the genre a pop phenomenon — and paved the way for its modern hitmakers.

Mickey Gilley remembers the moment he fell for the Urban Cowboy. It was 1978, and Gilley — the piano-playing cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis — was the namesake co-owner of Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas, just outside of Houston. The massive honky-tonk claimed to be the world’s biggest nightclub — it held 7,000 on a good night — and was the setting for an Esquire cover story about refinery workers who rode a mechanical bull instead of the range. There was a busted marriage at the story’s center, and Gilley was no fan of its distinctly New York tone. “The article started out, ‘Boy meets girl, twang, twang,’ ” he says. “I thought it was poking fun at country music.”

Then Gilley got a call from his partner, Sherwood Cryer, letting him know the Esquire story had sparked a movie deal, with John Travolta set to play the lead. Travolta had starred in Saturday Night Fever — a year-end top 10 box-office hit in 1977 — and Grease, the No. 1 movie of 1978. Both had generated hugely successful soundtracks, with Saturday Night Fever spinning off six hit singles — four of them Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s — and topping the Billboard 200 for 24 consecutive weeks. For Gilley, it was dead simple: “I’m thinking Saturday Night FeverCountry Night Fever,” he says. “I liked that article from then on out.”

Indeed, when the movie arrived in June 1980, Urban Cowboy helped do for country what Saturday Night Fever had done for disco: make the music — and the culture that surrounded it — a pop phenomenon, and then inspire a backlash. Country became a costume you could try on for a night out (sales of Western wear boomed), and the music took hold on the Hot 100, driven not just by Urban Cowboy singles like Gilley’s cover of “Stand by Me” and Johnny Lee’s “Looking for Love,” but songs by far bigger country stars that leaned even more pop, such as “Lady” from Kenny Rogers and “9 to 5” from Dolly Parton.

The soundtrack — which also featured the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett and Linda Ronstadt — climbed to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and launched six top 40 hits. Forty years later, its vision of rock guitars and pop balladry alongside fiddle and pedal steel defines Nashville. But at the time, it sparked debate about what was true country and set the stage for the neotraditionalist triumphs of George Strait, Randy Travis and others.

Opposite poles of the movie’s soundtrack: honky-tonk co-owner/singer Gilley (top) and the Eagles.

It was Irving Azoff who recognized the Esquire story’s potential and acted on it immediately. Days after the article came out, he was on the phone to Gilley’s. “I met with Sherwood Cryer and Mickey and acquired the rights to the bar,” he told CMT in 2015. “That was easily done, because I said, ‘Mickey, you’ll be in this movie, and that will help make you a bigger star.’ ”

The superstar manager’s first film venture, a movie called FM, had been a stinker, and he had pulled his name off the credits. But the soundtrack went platinum, and half of its 20 tracks featured Azoff clients, with Steely Dan’s title track going on to win a Grammy Award. Reportedly, Azoff considered an all-Eagles soundtrack for Urban Cowboy, but in the end, the 18 cuts on the album (on Asylum and Azoff’s label, Full Moon) featured just six from his clients, including Boz Scaggs, who co-wrote the seduction ballad “Look What You’ve Done to Me.” (It went to No. 14 on the Hot 100.)

The job of balancing Los Angeles country rock with the red dirt music of Texas fell to Becky Mancuso-Winding, who had been an A&R executive at Epic Records. As music coordinator, Mancuso-Winding essentially A&R’d the movie itself. The soundtrack’s Hot Country Songs No. 1s — “Looking for Love,” “Stand by Me” and Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance” — are integrated into the film’s action because she brought them to director James Bridges while he was still filming. “She defined the modern music supervisor,” says John Boylan, who produced “Looking for Love” and had worked with Mancuso-Winding at Epic. “She reinvented the job as a perfect liaison between the music industry and the film industry.”

Mancuso-Winding has said that Azoff wanted the hardcore country kept to a minimum: “Irving would say, ‘This is not a trailer park, Becky. You can have the trailer park in the film but not on the soundtrack.’ ” That may be one reason Boylan and Jim Ed Norman were called in to produce tracks for Gilley and Lee. Before he became a producer and A&R man, Boylan had been Ronstadt’s manager in 1971 when the nucleus of the Eagles first coalesced as her backing band. Norman had done string arrangements on the Eagles’ albums and had recently topped both Hot Country Songs and the Hot 100 with his production of Murray’s “You Needed Me.”

Though he would go on to become president of Warner Bros. Nashville in 1984, recording “Stand by Me” with Gilley was actually Norman’s first session in Nashville, and he describes the contrast between Music City professionalism and L.A. perfectionism: “The studio that I went into was prepared to record up to four songs in three hours,” he says. “A set of drums was already set up, with microphones placed, and the sounds that came from those microphones were just foreign to me.” He spent the morning mic-ing the drums, which confused Gilley, who gained no confidence when they returned from lunch and Norman switched the keyboard player from acoustic to electric piano for a softer sound. “I didn’t think he really knew what he was doing,” recalls Gilley. But he ended up with back-to-back No. 1s on Hot Country Songs. “I had to go back and apologize to him.”

For his part, Boylan says his instructions when producing “Looking for Love” came from the movie’s director, Bridges, who wanted it to be “straight-ahead barroom country.” “The first thing he told me is, ‘The reason I want Johnny Lee in this movie is that he’s every day, the kind of guy who’s the opening act at Gilley’s,’ ” recalls Boylan. “ ‘Don’t make it too slick.’ ”

If “Looking for Love” wasn’t slick by L.A. standards, it was by Nashville’s. “There was some pushback about the whole Urban Cowboy thing,” says Boylan. “Nashville is very insular.” Joe Galante, who became president of RCA Nashville in 1982, remembers this moment: “We were having a great deal of success as a town crossing records with Alabama, Dolly, Eddie Rabbitt, Waylon [Jennings], [Ronnie] Milsap and Willie [Nelson]. Then we started to hear from some of the town: ‘That’s not country music.’ ”

To Scott Borchetta, the president/ CEO of Big Machine Label Group, it’s a familiar cycle: “You can go all the way back to Patsy Cline and you have naysayers: ‘Those records are too pop. What is this new Nashville sound?’ ” Urban Cowboy, he says, “crossed the pop and rock borders in just the right way,” drawing a blueprint for the commercial dominance of Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt and others. “We look at that film as beginning to pave the way to the Class of ’89, which swept through the ’90s,” he says. “Sometimes the complainers are the loudest voices, but the one thing you can never argue with is success.”

This article originally appeared in the August 15, 2020 issue of Billboard.