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Mickey Gilley Doesn't Much Miss 'Cowboy Chic'

June 10, 1988|JOE EDWARDS | Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Singer Mickey Gilley, whose earthy Texas nightclub was the focus of the movie "Urban Cowboy," hasn't set foot in the honky-tonk for two years.

And he hasn't regularly worn a cowboy hat for three years.

Eight years after John Travolta and co-star Debra Winger started a fad known as "cowboy chic," Gilley has broken the ties that symbolized him as the country music singer most associated with the craze.

The 52-year-old performer is in litigation over the nightclub in Pasadena, Tex., where most of the 1980 movie was filmed. He alleges that an associate has let the cavernous club get run down.

"I drive by the club all the time, but I've not been in it for two years," Gilley said. "The business has practically died. The parking lot used to be full; now you can count the cars. I think it's just a matter of time until it goes under."

And his cowboy hat, part of the Western attire that became fashionable because of the popularity of the movie, has seen its last roundup.

"I've got hair; there's nothing to cover up," Gilley said. "I don't feel like a cowboy hat is something that's going to make or break my career. People had fun with that era, and I did too. People wonder where's my hat, but I haven't worn one now for three years. People just haven't seen me as much."

As one of the country music stars who sang in the movie, Gilley shot to the top in show business on the tails of "cowboy chic."

He appeared in "The Dukes of Hazzard," "The Fall Guy," "Hollywood Squares" and "Fantasy Island."

His concert fee rose from $5,000 to $25,000. One night he was paid $50,000 for 90 minutes to perform at Billy Bob's nightclub in Fort Worth, a club that has since closed as the fad tailed off.

Gilley had six straight No. 1 country hits in the early 1980s, when the movement peaked. His hits included "Stand by Me," "True Love Ways" and "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time."

Now, the era is a memory, just like the mechanical bulls featured in the movie.

"Everything has its day," he said, reflecting on the "cowboy chic" heyday. "Nothing lasts forever. People don't realize that the 'Urban Cowboy' fad had gone on in Texas for years and years.

"People had fun with it. When 'Urban Cowboy' hit, it affected the whole world. Travolta brought everything to front and center. It was like a billboard going up.

"Had it not been for him playing that part, it would not have had the impact.

"He had done 'Saturday Night Fever,' and this was 'country night fever.' It was a different life style, and it worked.

"Everyone became a cowboy or cowgirl. It was like when the Beatles came over and everyone grew their hair long and shook their heads. Everyone wanted to be part of what was happening. I'll remember it forever."

In the movie, Travolta learned how to ride a mechanical bull at the nightclub to win the favor of Winger, who was then a relatively unknown actress.

Today, Gilley is not sure the devices were such a good idea. They were contraptions, ridden as one would a bull, whose gyrating was controlled by an operator.

"It was a rodeo training device and should never have been put in an entertainment establishment in the first place," Gilley said. "We still have suits pending over it."

Nevertheless, nightclubs such as Gilley's sprang up across the country, many of them with mechanical bulls. Some were converted discos and patronized by customers in snappy cowboy hats, shiny cowboy boots and stylish Western wear.

"I probably remember the impact on country attire the most," Gilley said. "It was the first time you could walk into a casino in Las Vegas or Reno or Lake Tahoe or Atlantic City and see guys in cowboy hats. It changed the mood. It had its flash in the pan."

Gilley, whose cousins are rock 'n' roll star Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, has had 17 No. 1 records in a 14-year career.

He's on the road 115 days a year, down sharply from his peak era.

"I got to the point I wouldn't do golf tourneys," he recalled. "Back then, it was money, money, money; I was playing every place they threw in front of me.

"I wish I had cut in half what I did. I wanted to make as much money as quickly as I could. It was like a dragon: You feed it to keep it. The fire was coming out of his mouth.

"I'm happier with my performing now because I'm working less and ending up with more money than during 'Urban Cowboy,' because I'm able to do it with less people.

"Back then, I had a life style of airplanes and buses and trucks. I did stupid things. I prostituted myself for the money."

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