Styles & Forms | Urban Cowboys | Country
One of country music's rare departures from down-home values, the urban cowboy phenomenon of the early 1980s was much more a fleeting trend, driven by commercial greed, than a genuine grassroots movement.
The term ‘urban cowboy’ gained currency with the 1980 release Urban Cowboy, a hit Hollywood feature film of middling quality, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. Urban Cowboy’s country-themed soap opera story line was set in Gilley’s, a hangar-sized country dance club in Houston. The movie’s fleeting box-office popularity, and its million-plus-selling double-LP soundtrack, succeeded in unleashing a fad.
Hollywood Conquers Nashville
The Urban Cowboy soundtrack was, like the film, aimed at the mass pop market and featured country-flavoured tracks by pop and soft rock stars of the day like The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, along with offerings from quite a few second-string country artists like Johnny Lee and Mickey Gilley (an owner of Gilley’s club in Pasadena, Texas, which was famous for its electronic bucking bull that simulated an actual rodeo ride).
But for a brief while, the country music-inspired lifestyle depicted in Urban Cowboy captured the fleeting attention of young urban hipsters everywhere. Country dance clubs (many with their own mechanical bulls) began popping up in New York City and other unlikely places. Stetson hats and Durango boots suddenly became de rigueur attire for former disco dancers. As a result, many adult contemporary (pop and light rock) radio stations begrudgingly began to add uptown strains of country music to their play lists.
The Nashville music industry, anxious to capitalize on this new post-Nashville sound audience, once again shifted its focus to more subdued, pop- and rock-tinged strains of country that lightened up on the twang and went easy on the fiddles and steel guitar (if not eliminating them all together). The early 1980s crossover-style artists who spearheaded the urban cowboy craze were in many ways stylistic successors to the 1960s Nashville practitioners.
Sweet Home Alabama
Alabama, a tame, occasionally formulaic foursome from Fort Payne, was one of the first groups to arise during this time frame to have lasting impact. Since this quartet first hit the charts in 1980 with the single ‘Tennessee River’, it has sold more than 57 million albums. Alabama has since sustained enormous success with a calculated yet intriguing blend of country balladeering and soft country rock that strikes an agreeable balance between the predictability of urban cowboy and the spontaneity of more bedrock styles.
Other urban cowboy-era artists like Janie Fricke, Razzy Bailey and particularly Earl Thomas Conley did reveal occasional flashes of inspiration and vitality. But, by and large, urban cowboy music did not represent innovation so much as a mere watering-down of prevalent grassroots styles such as honky-tonk and the Nashville sound.
‘We’re all suburban. We all have TVs and radios, and we’re all exposed to a lot of different sounds.’
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