I HEARD THE NEWS THAT URBAN COWBOY IS going to become a Broadway musical, and that turned my thoughts to an era I believed had ended far, far in the past.
It was twenty years ago that a story appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine called “The Urban Cowboy— Saturday Night Fever, Country & Western Style.” This article dissected life at Gilley’s, an immense honky-tonk in Pasadena. The movie elevated what had until then been a purely local cultural phenomenon and transformed it into a national one. Gilley’s was more than just a kicker bar. It was larger than an airplane hangar and had a dance floor that was bigger than the parking lots of most honky-tonks. And it had a row of mechanical games rather like a carnival. There was a punching bag and later a quick-draw contest, but the defining contraption was a mechanical bull. Surrounded by an open area covered with mattresses, the bull was set on a piston and could swivel left and right and pitch up and down and back and forth according to the whims of whatever malevolent soul had the controls that night. One of its nicknames was Old Ohmaballs. Only the rare cowboy could ride it without getting thrown.
Urban Cowboy, a movie based on the article, followed in 1980. Starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, it exploded into the national consciousness and did for country dancing what Travolta’s earlier movie, Saturday Night Fever, had done for disco. The soundtrack from Urban Cowboy went triple platinum. Overnight, huge honky-tonks, each with a dance floor and a mechanical bull, sprang up in every self-respecting town west of the Atlantic Ocean.
The years between the article and the movie, from 1978 to 1980, were the frenzied climax of an economic explosion around Houston