America’s Most Unexpected and Phenomenal Movement
A sudden cultural explosion of urban cowboy-ism
By: J. Marlando
There was a most intriguing phenomenon that began in 1980, lasted only a year or so and then went away as quickly as it arrived. It was a historical event that historians have, by and large, missed or misunderstood in my opinion. What I am speaking of is the sudden emergence of a fashion trend that attracted Americans coast to coast, rich and poor and in the count of multi-millions. This trend was inspired by a movie with title, “Urban Cowboy,” which I will be talking about next. The point here, however, is that beneath the obvious popularity of the movie itself, the unexpected, national explosion of country music fans and yes, the sudden fashion switch from the modernism of the times back to country-look of jeans, cowboy hats, boots, big buckles and so forth, occurred a significant and deeply psychological historic event; an event that changed the very paradigms of both the personal and collective unconscious of Americans and their romantic attachments to the nation’s past.
I will attempt to explain this rather vague notion as clearly and as concisely as I can. After all, what happened in those very early years of the 1980s continues to have impact on the American individual and the society itself and will have as we continue forward into the 21st century and beyond. With only this much said we will begin the trek into the recent past.
A Quick Tour of Modernizing America 1945-1979
After World War II ended a great and proud patriotism flooded the U.S. but not without reason: the terrible war had ended in victory over not one, but two formidable enemies. And a great price had been paid in human lives that every American was aware of—and so permeating the pride of victory was also a deep seated grief that, by and large, became a strong cohesive factor for most Americans.
Because of the G.I. Bill and other factors most Americans felt trust and appreciation toward their government. After all, the government appeared to be doing whatever was possible to rebuild the American dream and a bright future for them. As a result the 1950s came to be called the “Golden Years” because for a great many they were prosperous and so happy and content years. There was the Cold War to content with but, even in its wake, the sunshine of hope for the future kept breaking through the dark clouds of a nuclear holocaust hanging over everyone’s head.
Then, early in the 1960s we came within virtual seconds of actually having the earth destroyed by a devastating war between the two superpowers. Then when that crisis passed, a new war emerged between the U.S. and North Vietnam which would become the most unpopular war in America’s history. During those 1960s and early 70s there was a massive youth movement that created distrust of government’s motives, of big business, or marriage…of the establishment altogether. The participants in the movement were called the hippies.
The major slogans of those years of turmoil were, to “Turn on, tune in and drop out” along with “make love, not war.” The triumphant victories that the kids actually achieved is that they greatly reduce racism and sexism, they changed fashion and our minds about the folly of so many social mores we’d permitted ourselves to be ruled by. And they taught us to question authority as opposed to simply following it blindly; to look at the truth and lies of history and not be fooled by the school-book-texts that often offered more mythology than anything actually historical. And so, the “kids,” right or wrong in their approach to make social changes, had nevertheless caught on to the hypocrisies of the world which inspired them to turned their backs on the church, on marriage, on business and on government those four cornerstones of nationalism.
Love was the theme of the entire hippy culture but during those radical 60s there was also the other side of the love coin—President Jack Kennedy was murdered, Martin Luther King was murdered, Robert Kennedy (Jack’s brother) was murdered and there were race riots that caused social and financial upheaval from California clear across the country. Indeed, from those “contented years” of the 1950s arrived the discontentment of the 60s; a time of change, chaos and deconstructionism. The only saving grace, so to speak, was the moon landing which help to recover a kind of American unity that had been lost over the decade.
The 1970s were wild and, in ways, wonderful years but also America’s heritage of traditional values were rejected by younger people and unlike the hippies anti-values became vogue for a great many people. Quite suddenly wife swapping came into vogue, and a sudden popularity of the “one-night stand” became commonplace. Free Love had taken on a whole different meaning from the original hippie concepts by the discoing mentality and the consequent rise of (singles) dance clubs becoming the rage of the decade. For only one thing, a new national morality had gone from “making love” to “having sex” which ironically was far more grounded in the feminine than the masculine.
No one…no one at the time could have even imagined or guessed that a sudden reversal of this rather rank modernism was going to occur in 1980 and that a rekindling of old-fashioned morality was soon to be spreading across the nation; a new movement that would enter wearing cowboy boots, hats, fringe skirts and jeans; a movement wanting to express itself in the values of old; it was the emergence of the urban cowboy!
A Short Background to the Movie and Movement
The famous country singer Jerry Lee Lewis and the fallen Evangelist Jimmy Swaggard are both cousins of the now well-known Mickey Gilley of singing and saloon keeping fame. Back at the start of the 1970s while Gilley was building a singing career he and a partner, Sherwood Cryer, opened Gilley’s, a large honky tonk night spot in Pasadena, Texas. It became the largest nightclub in the world and had a capacity of 6,000 patrons.
Gilley’s was a phenomenon in itself also known as the ugliest “dance club” in America and was housed in the old Shelly’s Honky Tonk. In any case, to a great many visitors it was a tasteless place but even by its owner called it a “filthy dive.” Nevertheless, it made money and attracted a lot of cowboys, blue collar workers and would be cowboys along with other heavy drinkers who liked to dance, ride the mechanical bull and, for many, to brawl. Gilleys was also known for its fights!
In a sense, many of the customers who were regulars at Gilleys liked playing cowboy…for real! Petty jealousies over wives and girlfriends, dumb conversations over politics and religion or over pool games and just plain old trouble-making was always on the nightly agenda that often ended up pretty bloody. Nevertheless, hundreds made Gilley’s their “home away home” and eventually the place actually became somewhat of a tourist attraction even before the movie. But the real magic was yet to arrive: Gilleys was destined to become the inspiration of the movie Urban Cowboy and the rest is…well…history.
The Urban Cowboy Movie
The Urban Cowboy was penned by Aaron Latham and James Bridges and directed by Bridges. The feature runs for 132 minutes and tells a kind of dumb story most basically about dumb people doing dumb things. The show stars John Travolta, Scott Glenn and Debra Winger. The plot unfolds with the character “Bud Davis” moving from the small Texas town of Spur to Pasadena, located near Houston. He was hunting to find a good paying job and make enough money to go back home and buy some land.
While in Pasadena, Texas Bud becomes a regular at the local honky tonk—an actual place in Pasadena called Gilleys, mentioned in the above.
Bud, clad in cowboy duds meets Sissy (Winger) who wants to know if he’s a “real cowboy. The two eventually fall in love and are actually married at Gilleys.
While all this is going on, Bud gets into the Mechanical bull riding competition and ends up with a rival, Wes, played by (Scott Glenn) who eventually ends up living with Sissy. This is followed by a kind of secondary plot that comes about when Wes steals the prize money from the bull-riding competition. This theft is, as far as I am concerned, the writers’ excuse for creating the reconciliation between Bud and Sissy that never quite worked for me. Nevertheless, the contrived ending did not at all diminish the popularity of the movie and the impact that it would have on the entire nation.
National Urban Cowboy-ism
Almost overnight after the release of the movie, if you will, in a twinkling of a historic eye, nightclubs started up mocking Gilley’s in California and many other places across the land—the sport of mechanical bull-riding was popularized in almost all of them and suddenly country music was dominating the radio and jukeboxes again.
The 2-step became extremely popular and this was a cultural phenomenon following the blatancy sexual innuendos on the disco, dance floor. In fact, an entirely different mood of dating quickly evolved where a kind of old-fashioned nativity applied. Certainly men and women continued being lovers in—as the country song says, back street affairs but sex was no longer assumed the major issue of dating. The major issue was to be friends and have fun together as a couple. If sex happened, it happened but the days of “free love” were mostly rejected and a new yearning for marriage and family life made an unexpected comeback into the American spirit with simple fun and innocents suddenly returning to the menu of our nationalism.
It seemed that almost overnight everyone was wearing western clothing—not everyone did of course but no matter where you looked there would be western fashion worn by young and old alike; people were even putting western clothes on their two year olds—straw cowboy hats with feathers and boots were everywhere and not just out west or the Middle West. Urban Cowboys and Cowgirls were even populating places like Wall Street so the big city had most simply gone country too.
Country music also had made a sudden resurgence into vast popularity. But it is here that we begin to realize a twist in the mind of Urban Cowboy-ism: There was something, in the “feeling” of the music that wasn’t quite right. It was even heard in Willie Nelson’s performances, the down and dirty country singer from the old school so to speak. George Strait (Willie’s opposite in image) with his traditional voice and uncanny popularity was also a major part of the changes taking place. Then, to those who had contemplated the “new feel” in country music realized what had happened. Country music, in a term, was being urbanized and with its urbanization a more pop sound was emerging.
There are probably no better examples of this than Dolly Parton. Like Kenny Rogers (best known for The Gambler) she became a country-pop singer just as Willie’s wonderful “On the Road Again” had. The only thing that camouflaged the crossover for Willie his distinctive, country voice but it had occurred nevertheless.
This is mentioned because the transition of country music symbolized the ending of what we might call American romanticism and the beginning of American modernism. In any case, the last to hold on to the traditional were performers like Randy Travis, Waylon Jennings, Crystal Gayle, Hank Williams Jr., and Eddie Rabbit but their rustic grip was not very strong in the wake of changing “country music” or the transition that was occurring for the country itself. And so “new” (call it modern) country became the phenomenon of the 80s and a phenomenon that would persist into our own times when even hip hop has influences on today’s cross-over country.
Why is all this is so significant?
It is when we apply it to the unconscious realities of the American psyche. Like that old time religion, the old time music had been pushed into the archives of the past. This “urbanization” of country music far extends the ending of a musical era however. The loss of traditional country music symbolizes our transitioning from one age to another. In other words, just as we see a transition between the Dark Age and the Age of Enlightenment, we can see the unfolding of our own transition from what we traditionally call “the olden days” into the “new” modernism.
The Historic Implications
I offer that the reason that the feature film Urban Cowboy made such a national impact on the American people is that on the deeply unconscious (collective) level there was a last goodbye being said not only to traditional country music but to the traditions of the “olden days” of which I have just mentioned. And what I mean by the term “olden days” is
Amicanism in the Norman-Rockwellian sense.
I will attempt to put this in prospective by saying that there is a time when all history is transferred into mental mythology in this way: We Americans all know that the Civil War occurred but we no longer identify with it as reality but merely as something that happened a long time ago. The wars that we give reality to are Vietnam and the current fighting in the Middle-East. And, just as World War I is now shoved onto the back shelves of our history, World War II in only another few years will make the transition from our country’s history into our country’s mythological attachments. (When I speak of myths, I do not mean being looked at as untrue but rather as something detached from our reality. And this, by the way, is why I mention the olden days as being in the “Norman-Rockwellian sense.” Norman Rockwell painted American myths as opposed to the American realism that he has always been associated with).
Let us examine the realities of what we will call pre-urban-cowboy-times: Americanism begins with the “love” and belief in freedom…Americanism mirrors itself in the romantic struggles of agriculture—the rural life of ranches and farming and of hard-working, honest folk. Americanism has identified with a basic home, mom and apple pie environment with family life being the very cornerstone of Americanism itself. Indeed, God, Home and Country has always been the foundation of American cohesiveness and yes, of American pride.
Beyond all else we Americans have been a people to believe in rugged individualism and what we have come to call the “frontiering spirit. These two qualities have been the heart and soul of American fundamentalism since at least the late 1800s.
We also have a long history of devoted nationalism, a blind faith and trust in our system and so our government. As Americans we have invariably felt the center of righteousness and good intentions. Historically we have always been the “white hats.”
By the time we reached the 1980’s, however, all these beliefs and attachments were being questioned—historians like Howard Zinn, Todd Gitlin and others were on the horizon of truth seeking as opposed to myth making. The 1960s and 1970s had taken a heavy toll on the values of America’s past; and when it came to such enterprises like marriage, business, religion, mores and morals a disenchantment had occurred. We had most virtually stopped trusting government in the 1960s just as we had begun recognizing the hypocrisies in our religions that had upheld segregation, sexism and racism instead of the love it had always preached.
Starting around 1955 we, as a people, began the process of deconstructing our history and pushing it into the mythological past. By 1980, when the Urban Cowboy opened in theaters it unexpectedly gave the audience a sense of loss—all the wonderful stuff of God, Home and Country that belonged to our very souls, had been exposed as mere “images” of the past, like the urban cowboy it was a creation of reality but not reality itself.
What people realized—probably or at least mostly on an unconscious level—was that all that was homespun and truly wonderful about the country was never to be again. After all, by the 1980s, family ties had virtually been lost by people leaving their hometowns to work or build careers in more advantageous places; our agriculture had fundamentally been taken over by big corporations, our manufacturing had primarily moved to Asia, China and India and our government was controlling more and more of our private life—in short, we wanted back into the myths, a returning to the naïve and simple olden days and so the craze for urban cowboy-ism exploded across the land, a wearing of our beloved yesterdays—fabled or not—became our persona in our fashion, in our attitudes and in our music.
A Look at the Present
Today’s young adults and children do not recall a time before video games, cell phones or when“good-old-boy country music” was around. In general, childhood itself has, if you will, come in from playing outside to a life of modern electronics and sitting in front of the television. Only the very old timers recall when home life did not demand two-incomes, when sex was considered a privilege of marriage and when we actually felt free as a population of individuals.
Indeed American romanticism was transferred from history into myth starting in 1980 when the Age of American-nationalism was exchanged for Technical Internationalism; from the time that service was king to international consumerism. Mind, in this view, has prevailed over heart and it is a heartless world that the next generation will enter which the last generations have constructed.
What will the future unfold…we will have to wait to see.