Inside Country Music's Polarizing 'Urban Cowboy' Movement

New CMT documentary looks at the musical and cultural impact of the 1980 John Travolta film and the famous honky-tonk in which it was set

Debra Winger and John Travolta helped bring country music and western style to the mainstream with 1980's 'Urban Cowboy.' Credit: Hulton Archive

Jon Cryer's iconic Duckie Dale from the Eighties John Hughes classic Pretty in Pink might not seem to have a lot in common with a dancehall on the fringes of Southeast Texas. But you could link one item — that leather-stringed Western bolo tie cinched loosely around Duckie's neck — directly to a honky-tonk named Gilley's and the movie that brought western fashion and country music into the mainstream. This year, the 1980 John Travolta film Urban Cowboy celebrates its 35th anniversary and CMT is chronicling the rise of the Urban Cowboy movement in a time-warping new documentary.

Urban Cowboy: The Rise and Fall of Gilley's, premiering on CMT on Saturday, June 13th, at 9:00 p.m., explores the origins of Gilley's and the implications of how national attention, followed by rampant commercialization, can be a lifetime boon for some — and a downfall for others. Directed by the same team that produces the innovative 30 for 30 series on ESPN, the documentary features interviews with Gilley, Travolta and others who were integral to the Urban Cowboy scene. It also looks at the real-life "urban cowboys" that inspired the film — most of whom went back to their normal lives on the oil rig while the rest of America became enamored with every stitch on Travolta's collar and finally welcomed country music into the mainstream.

Based on a 1979 Esquire Magazine story, Urban Cowboy told the tale of a country music love affair between Travolta's Bud and Debra Winger's Sissy in the town of Pasadena, Texas. The action was all set in Gilley's, where real-life "Gilleyrats," as they affectionately named themselves, spent their nights and money dancing, drinking beer and riding the bar's famed mechanical bull. At the center was singer-pianist Mickey Gilley (a cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis), who invested in the club with his business partner, Sherwood Cryer, when his music career had stalled.

When Urban Cowboy premiered, however, Gilley's career reignited.

"It launched me into the stratosphere," Gilley tells Rolling Stone Country of Urban Cowboy. Suddenly, the charismatic crooner started logging Number One hits, including "Stand by Me" from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack, which also featured tracks by the Charlie Daniels Band and Kenny Rogers. Like other films whose score spawned a movement (O Brother, Where Art Thou? nudged Americana up the charts), the music and the fashion took on lives of their own.

While the disco aesthetic, the predominant music style at the time, was all about indulging hedonism and dancing your cares away while wearing tight and/or short polyester pieces and towering shoes as painful as they were high, the Wranglers, cowboy boots and leather accessories of Urban Cowboy provided an authentic and all-American alternative. To many, it was a refreshing change.

"I was in an elevator in Nashville one day back in Eighties," recalls Gilley. "There was a guy on there who said, 'I want to thank you for all you did for Western wear.' And I said, 'You need to thank John Travolta. He's the one who brought it front and center.' Every night when I go to bed, I thank John Travolta for keeping my career alive."

Indeed, the spotlight from Travolta's Urban Cowboy allowed Gilley to make Gilley's into a merchandise machine, peddling everything from branded patches to panties, and turning the onetime local honky-tonk into a full-scale cultural temple where wannabe cowboys flocked in their crisp new denim, looking for redemption on the back of its mechanical bull (which, also, was branded and sold). In addition, clothing pieces like the bolo tie and cowboy boots went from being mocked as hillbilly to haute couture. Ralph Lauren collections from the early Eighties boasted thousand-dollar prairie dresses and thick silver belt buckles.

"It was probably my favorite film experience to do as an actor," says Travolta in the documentary.

Not everyone, however, was thrilled. Actor Barry Corbin, one of the Gilleyrats who also had a role in the film, mourns what the popularity did to the club. "It became something entirely different when that movie came out," he says. "It became a tourist attraction, mecca. All that place was a beer joint, it's all it was."

As country music began receiving the mainstream attention it had always lacked, Music Row was scrambling to find a way to cater to the rapidly growing audience, attempting to produce more accessible country sounds to match the demand. Johnny Lee's "Lookin' for Love," from the soundtrack, was an immediate and huge hit, reaching Number One on the country singles chart, as did other soft-country fare like Gayle's "Too Many Lovers" and Dolly Parton and Rogers' "Islands in the Stream." Gilley himself had a string of Number Ones, buoyed by his affiliation with the film.

This popular brand of country music was the perfect balance of what was once dismissed as redneck Americana with a polished pop sensibility. Though their sounds were innately different it's the exact same pattern that saw Garth Brooks and Shania Twain to the top decades later, and then, Luke Bryan and Taylor Swift.

But fashion is fickle. The diluted country music of Urban Cowboy became a guilty pleasure, and bars across the country eventually ditched their Gilley's-made bulls, while patrons traded in their cowboy boots for jelly sandals and late-Eighties trends. Gilley's itself burned to the ground in 1990 in a suspicious fire.

Still Urban Cowboy leftovers remain — like Duckie's bolo tie. Even today, as Americana music seeps deeper into popular culture, a Western wear aesthetic is seeing a resurgence, with brands like Pendleton Woolen Mills and epic beards appearing everywhere from New York to Paris. There's even a bed and breakfast in Brooklyn (and, soon, East Nashville) called the Urban Cowboy B&B.

Travolta, too, went out of fashion, until he staged a comeback in 1994's Pulp Fiction, etching himself once again into the cultural iconography with his Uma Thurman Chuck Berry-boogie dance scene. Around his neck?

A bolo tie.