Mickey Gilley and ‘Urban Cowboy’: A Texas Monthly Compendium
Mickey Gilley, the country music icon whose honky-tonk spawned a cultural phenomenon, died peacefully Saturday in Branson, Missouri, with friends and family by his side. He was 86 years old.
Originally from Mississippi, Gilley moved to Pasadena, just southeast of downtown Houston, in 1971 and opened his honky-tonk namesake, Gilley’s, which he billed as the largest in the world. The joint the size of an airplane hangar, regulars who called themselves “Gilleyrats” and a famous mechanical bull served as inspiration for the film Urban cowboy. The John Travolta and Debra Winger blockbuster, which was filmed on location and around Houston, helped bring honky-tonks, country dancing and western attire into the mainstream. As old Texas monthly editor Gregory Curtis wrote, “The film elevated what had until then been a purely local cultural phenomenon and turned it into a national phenomenon.” Despite his enormous success, Gilley once said Texas monthly that he resented the film’s PG rating. “Let’s face it, there’s a lot going on in nightclubs that people would rather their kids didn’t see,” he said.
During nearly 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 issues and fears – “I had heart surgery, brain surgery, broke my back, had two plane crashes and made two barrels,” he told the Houston Chronicle, and he won a fight 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 the charts in 1974, a year after Texas monthly Was found. As Gilley’s star rose, many MT the writers went to his Pasadena dance floor or, after the honky-tonk closed in 1989, learned the joys of double stepping elsewhere. “When the moment is right and that two step is in the groove, a door opens, the world comes crashing down and you’re in it,” Katy Vine wrote of a dance party with former Gilleyrats at a Urban cowboy meeting in 2001. “These experiences bring deep joy, even when they look or feel silly. I have come to recognize the potential of these moments.
To commemorate Mickey Gilley’s extraordinary contribution to Texas culture, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite stories about Gilley, the honky-tonk house he created, and the beer-in-the-back-pocket lifestyle below. that it has come to symbolize.
An oral history of Urban cowboy by John Spong
“In the coming months, mechanical bulls began to appear in bars across the country. Gaudy Texas chic has become a national rage, with an August Weather magazine story salivating over $32,000 worth of diamond bead headbands for sale at high-end Western clothing stores in Dallas and Houston. Over the next year, as six singles from the film’s soundtrack – a polished mix of pop and light country – scaled Billboard charts, some three hundred radio stations across the United States changed their formats to country music. America fell in love with Houston, and more generally with Texas, as schoolgirls fell in love with Travolta. The Urban Cowboy movement became the premier pop culture craze of the 80s.”
“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 condition (2004). But Urban cowboy did something more: it chronicled a rapidly changing Texas struggling to define its own style. ‘Are you a real cowboy?’ Sissy asks Bud, the very first time she talks to him. Bud’s answer – “Well, that depends on what you think of a real cowboy” – is, in fact, the history of the state in the late seventies. At a time when young people were migrating from rural to urban areas and the oil boom was radically transforming the state’s economy, Texans were suddenly forced to consider, or reconsider, what it meant to be Texan. .
“The Night I Took a Two Step With the Gilleyrats” by Katy Vine
“Imagine stepping into the world of this movie, with all of its slaps and innuendos, Wranglers and mechanical bulls and even Gilley’s former owner, Sherwood Cryer, behind the bar. With Billy Joe Shaver performing on stage at the new venue from Cryer, G’s Ice House, in Pasadena, the partners who had danced together for decades performed muscular turns and graceful glides in anticipation of each other’s steps. It was the Bolshoi Ballet of honky-tonk dancing, and these dancers were lifers, not tourists.
Katy Vine’s Original Urban Cowboy
“’Lookin’ for Love’ might be the real theme song to the original Urban Cowboy. Dew (for ‘Donald Edwin Westbrook’) feels no nostalgia for the Hollywood version of his life. He never even watched the movie. “Who has time? ” he said. “I saw bits and pieces of it. Travolta did well. I think he did a good job from what I saw. He narrowed his blue eyes mischievously while smiling, then he chuckled. ‘I survived’ – done’ life, You know?’ ”