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40 Years Later: Celebrating the ‘Urban Cowboy’ Soundtrack

The game-changing record hit No. 1 40 years ago, Aug. 2, 1980.

Written by Bob Paxman
40 Years Later: Celebrating the ‘Urban Cowboy’ Soundtrack
CIRCA 1980: Actor John Travolta and Debra Winger pose in a scene during the Paramount Pictures movie 'Urban Cowboy" circa 1980. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It’s often difficult to perceive a movie soundtrack album as being historically “significant” or even “important.” After all, the record is usually seen as little more than a tagalong element to the movie, or perhaps another piece of the marketing campaign. But in the annals of country music, two such albums are now regarded as works that changed the landscape of the genre while bringing in legions of new listeners. One from recent times is the soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? released in 2000, where bluegrass, gospel, folk, and traditional country powered the storyline, set during the Great Depression. Bluegrass giant Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and other stalwarts contributed to the soundtrack music, which caught the ears of youthful moviegoers along with longtime fans. The album soared to No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and the Billboard 200, which ranks all genres of music. Capping off its amazing run, the record won the CMA award for Album of the Year in 2001 and took home the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2002.

Twenty years before O Brother, the soundtrack album to the wildly popular movie Urban Cowboy gave country a much-needed kick by rustling up an entirely new cadre of fans. The album, released in June of 1980 along with the film, featured performances by country acts like Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee, and the Charlie Daniels Band. But pop and rock artists also contributed, including Boz Scaggs, the Eagles, and Bonnie Raitt. For most films, soundtrack music served merely as background noise, a collection of songs designed to fill up space between scenes. But for Urban Cowboy, music was a major component. Selections such as Lee’s now-classic “Lookin’ for Love” or Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance” helped advance the plot line. The musical numbers were crucial in developing the romantic story between the movie’s central characters Bud and Sissy, played by John Travolta and Debra Winger, respectively.

Urban Cowboy busted through like a bronco out of the gate and fired up a Western craze all across the country, effectively changing trends in music, fashion, and night life. Much of the film was shot at the massive Gilley’s Club in Pasadena, Texas, partly owned by Mickey Gilley. The club was famed for its expansive dance floor and a super-charged diversion in the form of a mechanical bull for those seeking the thrill (and pain) of a real rodeo. Soon, Gilley’s-style clubs, complete with mechanical bulls of their own, shot up seemingly overnight in every major city in America. Western wear became the apparel of choice, at least on weekends. Couples were springing to the dance floors, boot-scooting the two-step and the Cotton Eye Joe, to the swinging sounds of country.

Thanks to the soundtrack, country music was at the top again. The Urban Cowboy album rose to No. 1 on the country charts, Aug. 2, 1980, and stayed there for an incredible eight weeks. The album also landed at No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard 200. It eventually sold more than three million copies. “It was like a B-12 shot for country music,” muses Johnny Lee. This softer, mellower form of country ramped up the careers of such artists as Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and George Strait, while providing complete turnarounds for Gilley and Lee in particular.

“Country music was at a standstill,” Gilley tells Sounds Like Nashville, “and then it exploded on the market. I think what the movie and the album did was introduce country music to a larger audience. John Travolta gave it that extra boost because he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He does ‘Urban Cowboy’ and everyone goes to see it.” Travolta made disco the musical craze of the 70s with his breakthrough role in Saturday Night Fever, and now he had done the same for country with Urban Cowboy.

Gilley was featured prominently in the movie and on the soundtrack, performing his cover of the Ben E. King soul hit “Stand by Me” along with “Here Comes the Hurt Again.” He had tallied seven No. 1 singles through 1977, then went through a bit of a dry period. Urban Cowboy changed all that, as Gilley will firmly attest. “Stand By Me” took the No. 1 spot in August of 1980, and his four subsequent singles also went to the top. Gilley’s Club became a favorite watering hole for celebrities from music and film.

“What a great ride [the movie] gave me,” Gilley says, evidently not fully realizing his pun. “It turned around my music career. I did some movies and television (The Fall Guy and Murder She Wrote, among others) and got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And it was all because of that movie.”

Perhaps no artist benefited more from the whole Urban Cowboy mania than Texas-bred singer Johnny Lee. Lee was a proven club attraction around the Lone Star State but struggled to find any sort of success on the singles charts through the 1970s. His highest-charting single came in 1977 with a song called “Country Party,” which was actually the same tune as Ricky Nelson’s pop hit “Garden Party” with rewritten lyrics. As fate would have it, Lee was a regular performer at Gilley’s at the time the film was being made. While going through some tapes, he uncovered a song titled “Lookin’ for Love,” took to it immediately, and sang it in the movie. The single was released in July of 1980 and became a three-week No. 1.

“That song just hit me,” Lee relates to Sounds Like Nashville. “It did wonders for my career. I got to play the Grand Ole Opry and I became friends with Bill Anderson and Jack Greene and people like that. I never dreamed that I would get to know these artists that I admired. I always say that the Lord sent me that song.” Lee’s follow-up single, “One in a Million,” also reached the top, and he went on to score three additional No. 1s during the mid-1980s.

THE SOUNDTRACK’S LEGACY

The Urban Cowboy film and accompanying soundtrack paved the way for a new boom period in country music. The so-called “Urban Cowboy” sound was a softer, more pop-influenced style, hardly what you’d term traditional country. But it exacted a broad appeal.

“You can’t say that it was a true country album,” says Gilley. “I mean, Boz Scaggs wasn’t country, Bonnie Raitt wasn’t really country. But people listened to the entire soundtrack and were introduced to Johnny Lee, Charlie Daniels, and maybe myself. You had such a great variety of songs on there,” Gilley continues. “You had the Eagles with ‘Lyin’ Eyes’ and Anne Murray doing ‘Could I Have This Dance.’ People gravitated to Johnny Lee’s ‘Lookin’ for Love’ because it said something to them. It was just a great song.”

Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance” was also released as a single, hitting No. 1 in 1980. The song propelled Murray to a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female, in 1981. Another cut from the soundtrack, “All Night Long” by rocker Joe Walsh, rang with a pleasing country-rock flavor, but never showed up on the country charts. However, it’s a staple of classic rock radio formats, even 40 years down the road. The album spawned another country hit with Kenny Rogers’ “Love the World Away.”

Johnny Lee generally bristles at references to “fad” or “trend” when applied to the Urban Cowboy movement. “There was a lot of great music that came out of that movie,” Lee sternly declares. “We could use more fads like that. If you’re talking about the fashions or something like that, maybe that was a fad. But the music was not. [The movie] put country back on the map again. And it wasn’t just young people who were listening. People in their 30s and 40s were listening, too. And now, new generations have seen the movie on TV and they know all the songs.”

Admittedly, though, the sound had its detractors. Purists considered it too pop, often throwing in such brickbats as “bland” and “formulaic” for extra measure. Ironically, the Urban Cowboy movement was likely responsible for a subsequent new revolution in country music, generally known as Neo-Traditionalism. As a likely response to Urban Cowboy, artists such as Randy Travis, Reba McEntire, Dwight Yoakam and others came along in the late 1980s, brandishing their own particular takes on traditional country and bringing the format back to its roots.

But with little doubt, Urban Cowboy and its offshoots dominated in the first half of the 1980s. “I think the soundtrack helped bridge the gap between country and pop,” says Gilley. “Some great acts came out of that era, like George Strait. The movie influenced what people wore. Everybody all over the country who saw the movie started wearing cowboy hats and jeans. Before that, nobody wore a cowboy hat out in public. And I think the movie and the music led to the line dancing thing that hit big in the 90s and is still going on.”

Gilley will also agree with a number of historians and critics about the impact of the movie soundtrack. “I think it’s one of the most important albums to ever come out,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate to have so much success from it. I was really in the right place at the right time.”