How Urban Cowboy Disrupted Country Music

No matter how you look at the decade, the 1970s were a musical battleground. New and rising genres like disco, punk, funk, and hip-hop arrived as significant acts from the previous decade broke up (The Beatles), faded, or died. The Southern Rock and singer-songwriter movements impacted the charts, as did more socially conscious soul and R&B. In the country music arena, a struggle ensued between a shiny, rhinestone-covered version of the sound and artists who wanted to push for gritand authenticity. By 1980, the clash in country hit a flashpoint in an unlikely place, the John Travolta film Urban Cowboy, which was released 40 years ago this week.

Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” was a #1 pop song in 1977 (Uploaded to YouTube by Dolly Parton)

A fine point about the divergences in country through the 1970s was made in, wouldn’t you know it, The Saturday Evening Post. In a 1975 article, “Nashville – Where It Started,” Paul Hemphill said, “Country music isn’t really country anymore; it is a hybrid of nearly every form of popular music in America.” Hemphill meant the genre wasn’t just cowboy songs or honky tonk or rockabilly; it was a thing that combined all sensibilities, including folk and pop. Song of the biggest stars at the time, like John Denver or Olivia Newton-John, either started in other genres or integrated other styles into the country approach.  Denver even won the Country Music Association’s award for Country Music Entertainer of the Year in 1975. Established country artists like Dolly Parton began to regularly score huge hits on the pop charts.

“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” by Waylon Jennings (Uploaded to YouTube by Waylon Jennings)

That same year, Waylon Jennings recorded “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” which suggested that a new approach in both style and content was needed in the form. Jennings and other artists like his wife, Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and others, leaned on a rougher style that became known as Outlaw. Many of those artists chucked the shiny blazers and sparkly suits that had been en vogue for the decade in favor of jeans and leather vests or jackets.

The trailer for Urban Cowboy (Uploaded to YouTube by YouTube Movies / Paramount)

It was against this backdrop that Urban Cowboy came into being. The film drew inspiration from the Esquire article “Urban Cowboy” by Aaron Latham; Latham’s piece centered on a romance at Gilley’s, which was a massive honky tonk club in Pasadena, Texas. Latham and director James Bridges adapted the story into a screenplay with John Travolta and Debra Winger as the leads. It was little wonder that Travolta had an interest in the part; his massive 1977 hit Saturday Night Fever was also based on a magazine piece. Also like Fever, and Travolta’s 1978 hit, Grease, the part would allow him to show his dancing ability against the backdrop of a strong soundtrack (Travolta’s representation had previously suggested he take a cut of the soundtracks for Fever and Grease, a move that paid off to the tune of millions). While the film wasn’t as huge as Fever or Grease, it was a sizeable hit in terms of not just box office, but also fashion and music.

The soundtrack for Urban Cowboy leaned heavily on pop-flavored country and generated five Top 10 country singles (“Love the World Away” by Kenny Rogers; “Look What You’ve Done to Me” by Boz Scaggs; “Stand by Me” by Mickey Gilley; “Lookin’ for Love” by Johnny Lee; “Could I Have This Dance?”  by Anne Murray); the latter three all went to #1, and all five crossed over to the Pop Chart. Those songs, along with other hits like Dolly Parton’s title tune from her own 1980 film, 9 to 5, caused a major surge in the popularity of the lighter side of country.

Sylvia performing “Nobody” (Uploaded to YouTube by Sylvia – Topic / Sony Music Entertainment)

However, country traditionalists weren’t exactly thrilled. A definite schism arose in the genre between the rougher outlaw artists and related subgenres, and the more pop-oriented singers and groups. On a commercial level, the pop style was in ascendance, with artists like Rogers and Parton consistently notching hits on both charts. In the wake of the success of Urban Cowboy, new fans of the genre came in concurrent to a spike in the number of stations moving to a country format (some were new, while a few of these had abandoned disco and the 1970s staple AM easy listening formats). TV helped both sides, with the continued success of Hee Haw in syndication showcasing acts from all segments of the country spectrum. Following the lead of 1981’s launch of MTV, the 1983 debut of The Nashville Network gave the genre its own cable platform. Like Hee Haw, the channel featured a variety of artists; however, it did tend to emphasize pop-oriented and video-ready acts like Sylvia, whose “Nobody” went to #15 on the pop charts in 1982.

Of course, no subgenre holds sway forever. Pop crossovers started dropping in the mid-’80s as both the pervasiveness and increased diversity on MTV allowed superstars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and others to dominate the charts, while also allowing booming genres like metal and hip-hop to enjoy crossover success. Country retrenched in the mid-1980s as neotraditionalists like Clint Black, Dwight Yoakam, The Judds, Reba McEntire, and George Strait took over for the rest of the decade.

The Highwomen perform “Redesigning Women.” (Uploaded to YouTube by The Howard Stern Show)

Today, country is as it’s always been: an amalgam of many genres and subgenres. It experienced a huge boom in the early ’90s when SoundScan dramatically changed how sales were counted, and enormous acts like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain were as big as any stars on the planet. Though country still offers the occasional crossover breakout, like Taylor Swift, it’s steady and thriving. Some likened the recent years of male-heavy “bro country” to the Urban Cowboy years, but acts like Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, the supergroup The Highwomen (of which Carlile and Morris are members), Kacey Musgraves, and Kelsea Ballerini, among others, have carved out a bigger niche for female artists in the last few years. The lesson seems to be that no matter how far you stretch a form, it will at some point always snap back to the essentials. Or, to put it another way, you can put country on the pop charts, but it won’t forget where it came from.

Featured image: ThoseLittleWings / Shutterstock