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Urban Cowboy

Country music gets hip, briefly.


urban cowboy soundtrack album cover

Various Artists - 'Urban Cowboy Soundtrack' (1980)

Image courtesy of Asylum Records

How to Spot an Urban Cowboy (Musically Speaking)

  • Is it electrified and upbeat?
  • Does it actually feature '70s pop artists, such as Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles?
  • Does it remind you of adult contemporary radio?
  • Can you detect a Texas twang?

It might be an urban cowboy record.

Rise of the Urban Cowboy

Something odd happened in country music in the late 1970s. The genre, long lampooned for appealing to hayseeds and truck drivers, gained mainstream appeal. The "urban cowboy movement" was born, and it remains one of the more curious episodes in country music history.

How It Happened

As disco music's popularity plummeted in the late '70s, audiences went elsewhere for dance music. Artists who played country music with a soft pop bent benefited. But what really kicked the crossover into high gear was the 1980 release of the film Urban Cowboy.

John Travolta in Spurs

Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta, cemented the popularity of the new musical craze. The film was marketed as a country version of Saturday Night Fever, and it was a surprising success. The double album soundtrack sold over a million copies, moseying up to #3 on the Billboard pop charts and reaching #1 on the country album charts.

Suburbanites and city slickers were soon slapping on Stetsons and sauntering to their local honky-tonk night.

Rising Stars: Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee

The album's success bolstered the fame of the artists who appeared on it, notably Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee, who had formerly been marginal figures in the country music landscape. As the urban cowboy era waned, both faded from the spotlight. But not before bar owners began installing mechanical bulls to mimic the setting of Gilleys, the bar featured in the film.

Pop Boom and Country Bust

By 1981, country music was the best-selling U.S. musical style with huge sales. And country music was being played on FM dials to which it had rarely had access, namely adult-contemporary radio.

The urban cowboy craze died down by 1984 as mainstream audiences lost interest in country music and country's core audience turned off the pop-country superhighway and instead headed to new traditionalists like George Strait and Randy Travis who gained popularity through the rest of the '80s.

The End?

The urban cowboy died in the 1980s. Or did he? Alabama remained commercially viable into the '80s and '90s, albeit with a harder edged sound. And the popularity of Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts in the 2000s show the enduring commercial potential of country music that takes its cues from easy-listening music.

It all makes you wonder, Did the urban cowboy die... or just fake his death and change his identity?

Key Albums

  • Various Artists - Urban Cowboy Soundtrack (1980, Asylum Records)
  • Johnny Lee - Lookin' for Love (1980, Asylum Records)

Urban Cowboy Acts

  • Alabama
  • Razzy Bailey
  • John Conlee
  • Earl Thomas Conley
  • Janie Fricke
  • Larry Gatlin
  • Mickey Gilley
  • Lee Greenwood
  • Nicolette Larson
  • Johnny Lee
  • Charly McClain
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • T.G. Sheppard
  • Sylvia

Urban Cowboy Playlist

  1. Johnny Lee - "Lookin' for Love (In All the Wrong Places)"
  2. Alabama - "The Closer You Get"
  3. Barbara Mandrell - "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool"
  4. Juice Newton - "Queen of Hearts"
  5. Larry Gatlin - "All the Gold in California"
  6. Dolly Parton - "9 to 5"
  7. Oak Ridge Boys - "Elvira"
  8. Mickey Gilley - "You Don't Know Me"
  9. Charly McClain - "Who's Cheatin' Who"
  10. Lee Greenwood - "Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hands"
  11. John Conlee - "Rose Colored Glasses"
  12. T.G. Sheppard - "Only One You"
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  3. Country Music
  4. Country Music 101
  5. Urban Cowboys - Anatomy of a Fad

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