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Urban Cowboy: The 1980 Kickstarter of Pop-Country Movement

Urban Cowboy

Urban Cowboy was an American romantic Western film set at Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas, starring John Travolta (“Bud”) and Debra Swinger (“Sissy”). The 1980 film directed by James Bridge was credited for kick-starting the pop-country movement, which was later on referred to as “Urban Cowboy Movement.” 

The story of Bud and Sissy was adapted by Aaron Latham and James Bridge from a true story of two Gilley’s regulars named Donald ‘Dew’ Westbrook and Betty Jo Helmer narrated by Latham in an Esquire article of the same title. The two apparently met at the famous Gilley’s club (owned by Mickey Gilley, who also participated in the film) back when they were 18 and married just months after. And the couple even celebrated their wedding reception at Gilley’s!

But unlike (spoiler alert!) Bud and Sissy, who had a happy ending, Westbrook and Helmer did not. They were already separated when Urban Cowboy started filming. And eventually, they were divorced. As for the classic honky-tonk club, which opened in 1971, closed down for good in 1990 after a fire (believed to be arson) burned everything. Don’t worry, though! There’s a new Gilley’s located in Dallas, which contains a lot of Urban Cowboy memorabilia, including the iconic El Toro, the original mechanical bull. And compared to the corrugated steel roofed Gilley’s in Pasadena, the one in Dallas is definitely fancier. 

While there was an expectation that the film would do great commercially considering it was top-billed by Travolta (who also starred in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Grease’, which both did well in sales), it was initially a flop. Interestingly, the reason why teens didn’t flock to watch Travolta on the big screen was that they did not have any idea what “urban” meant. Nevertheless, it went on to gross around $47 million, which was considered modest in terms of box office sales. 

As for critical reception, it was dubbed as the country music version of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and generally got positive ratings. Vincent Canby of the New York Times also noted that the film was not only entertaining but was also a ‘first-rate social criticism.’ 

Meet The Main Cast of Urban Cowboy

Get to know a bit more about the actors who played Bud, Sissy, Wes, Pam, and Uncle Bob. And some interesting trivia about their characters.

John Travolta as “Bud”

John Travolta is known for his high-grossing films ‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1977) and ‘Grease’ (1978). And this one definitely added to his long list of signature roles. But interestingly, he was not the first option for Bud. In fact, the script was written for Dennis Quaid, but he was never cast in the role. 

Debra Winger as “Sissy”

Debra Winger is definitely one of the best actresses of the ‘80s earning multiple Academy and Golden Globe nominations. But what kick-started her career was her splashing role as Sissy Davis, the love interest of Bud played by John Travolta. Sissy Spacek, who played Loretta Lynn in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ was one of the main actresses who were also considered for the role. 

Scott Glenn as “Wes Hightower”

Every romantic film has a love triangle and for ‘Urban Cowboy’ that was Wes Hightower, an ex-convict, played by Scott Glenn. Wes was a flirt who taught Sissy how to ride the mechanical bull and later on became her abusive love interest. Glenn starred in many well-known 1990 films and also featured in The Bourne Series and Netflix’s Daredevil. 

Madolyn Smith as “Pam”

Madolyn Smith played the role of Pam, the daughter of a rich oil man, who was the side love interest of Bud Davis. ‘Urban Cowboy” was her first-ever role that brought her public attention. Later on, she went to star in different films until her last credited role in 1994’s episode of ‘Due South.’

Barry Corbin as “Uncle Bob”

Uncle Bob was a former rodeo champion who mentored Bud for the mechanical bull riding contest. The character was played by Barry Corbin, known for his role in the TV series ‘Northern Exposure,’ where he earned two consecutive Primetime Emmy nominations. 

Urban Cowboy Chart-Topping Soundtrack

The film’s soundtrack definitely earned numerous multiple number one hits like “Lookin’ for Love” by Johnny Lee and “Stand By Me” by Mickey Gilley. It also featured hit songs from earlier years and is considered to have started the 1980s pop-country music known as the “Urban Cowboy Movement.”

  • “Hello Texas” by Jimmy Buffet
  • “All Night Long” by Joe Walsh
  • “Times Like These” by Dan Fogelberg
  • “Nine Tonight” by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band
  • “Stand By Me” by Mickey Gilley
  • “Cherokee Fiddle” by Johnny Lee
  • “Could I Have This Dance” by Anne Murray
  • “Lyin’ Eyes” by Eagles
  • “Lookin’ for Love” by Johnny lee
  • “Don’t It Make Ya Wanna Dance” by Bonnie Raitt
  • “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by Charlie Daniels Band
  • “Here Comes The Hurt Again” by Mickey Gilley
  • “Orange Blossom Special” / “Hoedown” by Gilley’s “Urban Cowboy” Band
  • “Love the World Away” by Kenny Rogers
  • “Falling in Love for the Night” by Charlie Daniels Band
  • “Darlin’” by Bonnie Raitt
  • “Look What You’ve Done to Me” by Boz Scaggs
  • “Hearts Against the Wind” by Linda Ronstadt and J.D. Souther

Enjoy these tunes from Urban Cowboy and go dance your heart out!

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