Out West

Remembering Urban Cowboy

Gilley's bar front from the movie Urban Cowboy

The blockbuster film introduced the world to mechanical bulls, oil field cowboys and a new prism through which to view the American West.

As someone who writes about the cultural West, I am always in the posture of being a  “hunter of moments.” That means constantly looking for stories that tell us not only where we have come from and where we may be going, but what it all means. Pretty Zen stuff, but it means always trying to see the way the contemporary West operates and evolves, and just how it is perceived around the world.

John Travolta riding a mechanical bull in the movie Urban Cowboy
John Travolta

One of those historic moments came after an article appeared in the venerable Esquire magazine way back in September of 1978. Writer Aaron Latham had penned a story titled, “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit.” Latham wrote, “Enter the world of Gilley’s, a honky-tonk saloon in Houston, Texas, 3 ½ acres of God’s prairie, where the urban cowboys go at night to dance with cowgirls, punch the bag and prove their manhood on the treacherous mechanical, bucking bull. The values in the rest of society may be hard to understand, but they’re clear and simple at Gilley’s. It’s the Cowboy Code, all right, and home on the range, even though the range is a bar downtown. Learn all about this through the love story of three people who seem to be acting out a real-life country ballad.” Wow.

Talk about your permission giver, the story exploded as the late 1970s was broadly embracing country music and the country music club scene was becoming a popular venue for all sorts of urban types. It was the “freeway West” now with not a horse or cow to be seen, and Paramount Pictures adapted the story and produced the film Urban Cowboy under legendary producers Robert Evans and Irving Azoff. Latham and director James Bridges developed the screenplay. The film, released in 1980, was well received and many critics called it “the country music version of Saturday Night Fever.” It’s a film that is guiltless about choosing to fully embrace the mythic image of the cowboy right in the middle of Texas oil fields. In its own way, Urban Cowboy was a throwback to classic Westerns of an earlier era—not much plot other than, in the end, the hero wins the girl and defeats the bad guy. America, like John Travolta’s character Bud, was looking for something. Bud was trying to navigate a West that was constantly changing before him, and the country was looking for stability and something to believe in after crawling through the turbulent 1960s and the Vietnam War. The film resonated with a wide audience.

Beyond the film’s general appeal, it opened the doors of Western retail stores to all sorts of new customers. Business boomed as lawyers and bankers put on hats with big feather bands and boots with white wing tips. The film almost single handedly brought attention back to the West—something that really hadn’t happened since the perceived end of Western filmmaking in the early 1960s. The scope of Western wear makers changed and evolved with mainstream designers seeing the opportunity. Ralph Lauren gave credence to Wall Street types who wished to embrace the apparel and look of the cowboy. Many people started to discover something that was a true root-based culture in the United States. But as the look was based on a film experience, and while it was a bubble in the movie business, it changed the way business was done in Western apparel, and for good reason. In 1980 alone, more than 10 million pairs of boots were sold, and the hat business topped $500 million (that was big dough in 1980). Remember the colognes? Chaps, Stetson and Colorado Sage were popular brands. It was a time of change in America, and we even had a presidential candidate who wore a cowboy hat. “This is Reagan Country” billboards exclaimed all over America.

Urban Cowboy movie poster

Many of us have watched Urban Cowboy countless times, with its bull riding scenes, fights, dialogues between Travolta and Winger, and performances by Scott Glenn, Madolyn Smith, Barry Corbin and James Gammon. And the music from the soundtrack, as of 2018, continued to sell and was certified triple platinum, selling more than 3 million copies. The soundtrack included songs from Bonnie Raitt, Joe Walsh and the Eagles, Mickey Gilley (“Stand By Me”) and Johnny Lee with his homage to the era, “Lookin For Love.”

It was credited to have started the 1980s boom in pop-country music and certainly helped open the eyes of the world to a living and evolving West. So the next time Urban Cowboy comes on cable or falls into your Netflix queue, pull out those wing-tip, pointy boots from the back of the closet and take another look at the world of Bud and Sissy.

All photos from original Urban Cowboy press kit.” 

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