June 9

Remember When Urban Cowboy Changed Country Music 40 Years Ago?


It’s forty years ago today when the movie Urban Cowboy hit the theatres. The film, which starred John Travolta and Debra Winger as Bud and Sissy, followed the challenges and misfortunes of the two regulars at the well-loved honky-tonk in Texas, The Gilley’s. The duo fell in love, got married, and weathered through so many rough-and-tumble turbulence before getting their happy ending.

It Was Inspired on True Story

Most fans did not know that Urban Cowboy was based on the 1978 Esquire Magazine cover story. The article titled, The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit, featured Pasadena, Texas, honky-tonk Gilley’s and the man named Dew Westbrook.

Westbrook was “the beer joint bull rider” and was “as uncertain about where his life is going as America is confused about where it wants to go.” 

It Was a Huge Success

John Travolta was fresh from the huge success of Grease and Saturday Night Fever, and it totally helped propel Urban Cowboy to box office success. When it was released on June 6, 1980, the film garnered $53 million in its theatrical run against the budget of $11.2 million.

Even if those numbers were far smaller compared to other films, Urban Cowboy still helped Travolta recover from a flop with 1978’s Moment by Moment.

It Reignited Country Singer Mickey Gilley’s Career

Most of the scenes were all set in the largest honky-tonk in Texas called the Gilley’s. It was owned by country singer Mickey Gilley and business partner, Sherwood Cryer. The musician invested in the club when his music career had stalled.

But thanks to the premiere of Urban Cowboy premiered, it re-launched Gilley’s career. “It launched me into the stratosphere,” Gilley told Rolling Stone Country about Urban Cowboy. All of a sudden, the charismatic crooner started charting No. 1 hits, including “Stand by Me” from the soundtrack of Urban Cowboy.

And Gilley was more than grateful, “I was in an elevator in Nashville one day back in Eighties,” Gilley said. “There was a guy on there who said, ‘I want to thank you for all you did for Western wear.’ And I said, ‘You need to thank John Travolta. He’s the one who brought it front and center.’ Every night when I go to bed, I thank John Travolta for keeping my career alive.”

Actor John Travolta Did His Own Mechanical Bull Stunts

John Travolta took his Urban Cowboy very seriously. The actor revealed in his 2015 interview with Texas Monthly: “Right away, I went to Texas to rub elbows with cowboys, real and urban, and it was a revelation. I was used to New York and LA, where people looked over each other’s shoulders at parties for someone more interesting to talk to,” Travolta recalled. “These Texans just wanted to have a beer, a whiskey, and a fantastic time.”

After he had spent a month there, Travolta went back to his California ranch and spent his time at home practicing on his own personal mechanical bull and dance floor. He actually had a mechanical bull installed in his house. He would drive around while listening to a tape of the script spoken in a Texas accent, so he could totally get the tones down pat.

More Scenes in the Movie Are As Real As It Get

One of the film’s highlights is a rodeo scene that took place in a prison. If most films would shoot such scenes in an abandoned warehouse or soundstage of the likes, Urban Cowboy’s different. Believe it or not, that scene was actually as real as it could get.

That memorable scene was shot at a real prison, located in Huntsville, Texas. But that’s not all, the prison had actually been hosting real-life rodeos there for the past several decades!

John Travolta Got Some Dancing Tutorial from Patrick Swayze’s Mother

Even though John Travolta had shown plenty of dance moves in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, he needed someone to teach him how to two-step and Patrick Swayze’s mother was that someone! 

Patsy Swayze was the founder and the one who led the Houston Jazz Ballet Company. She’s also a dance teacher at the University of Houston. After Patsy Swayze’s stint in Urban Cowboy, she moved to Los Angeles and ran her own dance studio. She continued working with Hollywood’s dance needs as her own son’s dancing star rose.

Patrick Swayze’s wife, Lisa Niemi, also choreographed the dance sequences. Several years after the release of Urban Cowboy, Patrick Swayze starred in one of the most beloved films of all time, Dirty Dancing. 

John Travolta Had to Give Up Another Movie to do Urban Cowboy

John Travolta was originally contracted to star in the film American Gigolo; however, the actor had reservations because the script was “too reminiscent” with the movie he had just done and flopped, Moment By Moment. He said to Texas Monthly. “So I asked to get out, and Paramount said I’d have to do two movies to replace it. That’s when Urban Cowboy came up.”

The Leads Could Have Been Different

The film could have turned out very differently. To begin with, director Jim Bridges originally thought Dennis Quaid was a better choice for Travolta’s starring role. Travolta, up to this day, admits that his casting may have raised a few eyebrows back in the day.

“I felt like I had established, between Boy in the Plastic Bubble and Carrie and Saturday Night Fever, that I was indeed an actor. That was my job,” Travolta said. “If probably there were any skeptic, it might have been maybe the local person. ‘Can the city guy do this or not?'” Yet, we’re glad Travolta did it.

And for the female lead, the top contender was Sissy Spacek. She was the actress who played Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. However, her chemistry with John Travolta was not quite right. Michelle Pfeiffer was also considered for the role but Debra Winger eventually got it.

Real-life Stars Make Musical Cameos in the Film

Real-life stars, Johnny Lee, Taz Di Gregorio, Charlie Hayward, Bonnie Raitt, and Charlie Daniels, made cameos in the film as themselves.

You Can No Longer Visit The Original Gilley’s

Unfortunately, the film’s central setting no longer exists. In 1989, Gilley’s has suffered an arson fire that gutted the interior. There were rumors that the fire had been caused by one of its owners, Sherwood Cryer, so that he could collect insurance. Though the building’s shell was still standing until 2006, it was demolished by its current owner, the Pasadena Independent School District. 

On October 2, 2003, Gilley’s has reopened; this time in the bigger urban center of Dallas-Fort Worth. The new club featured a 26,000 square foot main showroom and the original mechanical bull, El Toro, which can be seen in the movie. 

It Changed The Country Music Forever  

Country music has exploded after Urban Cowboy, thanks to the blending of pop culture and country music prominently featured in the movie.

The soundtrack from the movie itself was a country revolution. It garnered five top-10 country hits, as well as four No. 1 singles. Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ For Love” was inevitable. Mickey Gilley, who was in his 40s, became a star for the first time. Kenny Rogers had his pop-country crossover glory days in the 80s after his song on the soundtrack peaked No. 1. Other country and crossover singers featured on the album were Charlie Daniels Band, The Eagles, and Bob Seger.

The country stations all over America also started popping up, especially in the West and Northeast, where it was otherwise hard to come by. The Urban Cowboy movement had definitely begun. You can really tell that no movie ever came close to affecting country music as Urban Cowboy did.


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