In the summer of 1979, the Houston news and gossip circles were dominated by the presence of one John Travolta, who lived in the city while filming Urban Cowboy in nearby Pasadena. It was only the fourth leading role for the 25-year-old actor, but he was already arguably the world’s biggest movie star. The first two films he had carried, Saturday Night Fever and Grease, were among the highest-grossing movies in the history of Paramount Pictures. Saturday Night Fever had earned Travolta a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and the sound tracks to the two films had become the music industry’s number one and number two all-time best-sellers. Though his most recent film, Moment by Moment, an awkward May-December romance starring him opposite Lily Tomlin, had flopped, he was still a bona fide matinee heartthrob. Teenage girls camped out in cars in front of Memorial-area homes they thought he was renting. At least one found the correct address and was soon evicted from his closet. Houston City magazine reported that bottles of muddy water extracted from an on-set pothole that Travolta’s character had fallen in were selling for $25. Between that and the lowly Astros unexpectedly vying for their first division championship, 1979 might have been the strangest summer Houston had ever seen.
One year later, the city would start learning what weird really was. On June 5, 1980, Urban Cowboy celebrated its world premiere at, of all places, a suburban Houston cineplex, with a star-studded charity gala afterward hosted by Houston’s leading international socialite, Lynn Wyatt. The party’s location was Gilley’s, the Pasadena nightclub that billed itself as the world’s largest honky-tonk. It had provided the setting for the film, which related the up-and-down romance of Bud and Sissy, two Gilley’s regulars—or Gilleyrats, as the term went—whose young marriage hit the rocks when they encountered the movie’s unbilled third co-star: a mechanical bull. Travolta and Debra Winger, who played Bud and Sissy, attended the after-party, as did their co-stars, a slew of Hollywood execs, an even larger slew of real-life Gilleyrats who’d appeared as extras, a couple dozen of Madame Wyatt’s nearest and dearest, and some 3,500 starstruck Houstonians. The scene was surreal. One report described fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg taking Andy Warhol’s picture while he sat on the mechanical bull taking a picture of her.
In the coming months, mechanical bulls started popping up in bars all over the country. Gaudy Texas chic became a national rage, with an August Time magazine story salivating over $32,000 diamond-beaded hatbands for sale at upscale Western-wear stores in Dallas and Houston. Over the next year, as six singles from the movie’s sound track—a polite mix of pop and light country—scaled Billboard charts, some three hundred radio stations around the United States changed their formats to country music. America was falling for Houston, and more generally Texas, the way schoolgirls fell for Travolta. The Urban Cowboy movement became the first pop-culture craze of the eighties.
In the 35 years since, regard for the film has declined substantially, particularly in Nashville, where the movie’s title has long been synonymous with a watered-down sound. But that’s not entirely fair. Many of the biggest-selling artists lumped into the easy-listening Urban Cowboy vein, singers like Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt, and Anne Murray, were having crossover pop hits well before the movie came out. Country music was so hot at the time, in fact, that two other C&W films—Coal Miner’s Daughter and Honeysuckle Rose—also premiered that year. Even in fashion, freaky cowboy clothes had already moved into vogue, as evidenced by an August 1979 issue of GQ devoted to “The New West” that looks, in hindsight, like a western parody on par with Blazing Saddles. Urban Cowboy merely caught a wave that had yet to crest. But with Travolta atop the marquee, the movement gained momentum and a name.
If that’s on your mind as you watch the movie now—if you’re looking for the birth of the fad—you’re bound to take it lightly. Its hackneyed plot will not convince you otherwise. But there are better ways to watch Urban Cowboy. For one, you could focus on the remarkable Golden Globe–nominated performance of 25-year-old Winger, the opening statement in a career that would earn her three Oscar nominations. But there’s also the way the film let Gilley’s portray itself. Urban Cowboy, as well as the Esquire cover story that inspired it, was based on the lives of actual people. In real life Bud and Sissy were called Dew and Betty. And though they wound up divorced rather than reconciled, for a brief while in the late seventies they loved to spend Friday and Saturday nights two-stepping at Gilley’s, along with four thousand other refinery workers, truck drivers, waitresses, and ranch hands just like them. If you watch Urban Cowboy with an eye for what that was like, you’ll discover a singular moment in Texas history.
Aaron Latham authored the Esquire piece and co-wrote the screenplay: The story was obvious. These kids were coming in from the country to find themselves in a mechanized city, just another cog in the wheel. They needed a place where they could recreate their own world, and it happened to be in a honky-tonk. The bull was the perfect metaphor. It was a machine. If they could conquer that, they’d conquer the city.
Debra Winger played Sissy: I remember exactly where I was when I read that story: on a mattress on the floor of a friend’s apartment in Hollywood where I used to crash. And I thought, “Fuck! If my career was just this much further along, if I just had an agent. Because I can play the shit out of this girl.”
Jack Larson co-produced the film and was the forty-year companion of its director, James Bridges, who died in 1993: Jim and I thought he was making a genuine, classic western—not out on the range, but in the environs of a bar.
Charles Ramirez Berg teaches film history and criticism at the University of Texas at Austin: One of the ideas in westerns is time overtaking the cowboy, an almost aching feeling that things aren’t the way they used to be. Well, Urban Cowboy isn’t wide-open spaces and sunsets against the mesa. It’s trailer parks and oil fields.
Betty Jones was the inspiration for Sissy: The movie showed what life really was like, just normal people living everyday life. But it wasn’t all true. We never lived in a trailer, first off. And they had my daddy as a wrecker driver. My daddy was a trim carpenter. He had his own business.
Becky Mancuso-Winding was the film’s music coordinator: Irving Azoff [one of the film’s producers] had seen the massive acceptance of the California sound—the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt—which was rooted in country. And you could already hear the Eagles’ influence on Nashville. Irving knew it was time for a crossover, and not just musically. He’d looked at the disco movement and Saturday Night Fever. He knew Urban Cowboy could impact the way people dressed, ate, danced, listened.
John Travolta played Bud: Urban Cowboy was three-dimensional. You could watch it, and then you could go experience it. You could buy a cowboy hat, get on a mechanical bull, go country dancing. You could live this movie.
Johnny Lee recorded the sound track’s biggest hit, “Lookin’ for Love”: When that movie was hot, I was shitting in high cotton. I ended up doing a Dick Clark special. He’d formed his all-American band. Stevie Wonder was our piano player, and I played rhythm guitar, up there with all of these big shots. Man, I didn’t know whether to scratch my watch or wind my ass.
John Dorsey recently completed a documentary on Gilley’s called “Ballad of the Urban Cowboy” that will air in June on CMT: There was a Fantasy Island episode [that aired in 1982] that’s basically the origin story of Gilley’s. Mickey Gilley played himself, and he gets plucked from obscurity by a character named Sherwood Cryer. They must’ve shipped the entire club to Hollywood, including the bull, the stage, and the signage on the walls.
Dew Westbrook was the inspiration for Bud: Urban Cowboy showed how it was to be a young person, hanging out in a bar and working. It’s a lifestyle that’s not the same—but is the same—anywhere else in the country. It’s like Saturday Night Fever. That movie showed what it was like to be a kid dealing with the things they deal with in Brooklyn, New York. This just moved it to Texas.