Mickey Gilley, the country music icon whose honky-tonk birthed a cultural phenomenon, died peacefully on Saturday in Branson, Missouri, with friends and family by his side. He was 86.
A Mississippi native, Gilley moved to Pasadena, just southeast of downtown Houston, in 1971 and opened his namesake honky-tonk, Gilley’s, which he touted as the largest in the world. The airplane hangar–size joint, regulars who referred to themselves as “Gilleyrats,” and a famed mechanical bull served as inspiration for the movie Urban Cowboy. The John Travolta and Debra Winger blockbuster, which was shot on location and around Houston, helped bring honky-tonks, country dancing, and Western wear into the mainstream. As former Texas Monthly editor Gregory Curtis wrote, “The movie elevated what had until then been a purely local cultural phenomenon and transformed it into a national one.” Despite its massive success, Gilley once told Texas Monthly that he resented the film’s PG rating. “Let’s face it, a lot of things go on in nightclubs people would rather their children didn’t see,” he said.
Over almost five decades as a musician, Gilley had seventeen number one singles, including “She’s Pulling Me Back Again” and “I Overlooked an Orchid.” Despite his age and an almost unbelievable array of health afflictions and scares—“I’ve had heart surgery, brain surgery, broken my back, been in two airplane crashes, and rolled a car two times,” he told the Houston Chronicle, and he won a bout against the coronavirus in 2020—Gilley continued to tour. Last month, he played ten shows.
Gilley’s first number one single, “Room Full of Roses,” topped charts in 1974, one year after Texas Monthly was founded. As Gilley’s star rose, many TM writers made their way onto his Pasadena dance floor or, after the honky-tonk shuttered in 1989, learned the joys of two-stepping elsewhere. “When the moment hits and that two-step is in the groove, a door opens, the world falls away, and there you are,” wrote Katy Vine of a night dancing with former Gilleyrats at an Urban Cowboy reunion in 2001. “These experiences provide deep joy, even when they look or feel silly. I have come to recognize the potential for these moments.”
To commemorate Mickey Gilley’s extraordinary contribution to Texas culture, we’ve gathered below some of our favorite stories about Gilley, the honky-tonk home he created, and the beer-in-the-back-pocket lifestyle he came to symbolize.
An Oral History of Urban Cowboy by John Spong
“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.”
“No Bull” by Christopher Kelly
“Movies inspire trends all the time, whether it’s Audrey Hepburn’s oversized sunglasses in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) or the melodic indie rock that was all the rage after Garden State (2004). But Urban Cowboy did something more: It chronicled a rapidly altering Texas struggling to define its own style. ‘Are you a real cowboy?’ Sissy asks Bud, the very first time she speaks to him. Bud’s answer—‘Well, it depends on what you think a real cowboy is’—is, in effect, the story of the state in the late seventies. In an era when young people were migrating from rural areas to urban ones and the oil boom was radically transforming the statewide economy, Texans were suddenly forced to consider, or reconsider, what it meant to be Texan.”
“The Night I Went Two-Stepping With the Gilleyrats” by Katy Vine
“Imagine stepping into the world of that film, with all its ass-slapping and innuendo and Wranglers and mechanical bulls and even Gilley’s former owner Sherwood Cryer behind the bar. With Billy Joe Shaver playing onstage at Cryer’s new place, G’s Ice House, in Pasadena, partners who had danced together for decades executed muscular turns and graceful slides as they anticipated each other’s steps. This was the Bolshoi Ballet of honky-tonk dance, and these dancers were lifers, not tourists.”
The Original Urban Cowboy by Katy Vine
“ ‘Lookin’ for Love’ could be the real-life theme song of the original Urban Cowboy. Dew (for ‘Donald Edwin Westbrook’) doesn’t feel any nostalgia for the Hollywood version of his life. He’s never even watched the movie. ‘Who’s got time?’ he said. ‘I’ve seen bits and pieces of it. Travolta did good. I think he did a good job from what I’ve seen.’ He squinted his blue eyes mischievously as he smiled, then he laughed from the gut. ‘I’ve been survivin’—doin’ life, you know?’ ”