10 Albums Any True Urban Cowboy Should Own
There's no telling the reasoning that caused Kings of Leon to call their sixth album, released late last month, Mechanical Bull. But to venture a wild guess, could be the Nashville-via-Oklahoma rockers are trying to put across a general image of toughness after a difficult few years, or perhaps suggest the robotic nature of their many duties as an A-list rock band. Plus it sounds a little country, and even after all these years so do Kings of Leon.
One thing the title makes abundantly clear is that the imagery associated with Urban Cowboy, the 1980 film that improbably made the culture surrounding enormous Pasadena honky-tonk Gilley's a national phenomenon, is hardly a thing of the past. Look no further than, well, Pasadena, where this past weekend the Texas Saloon on Spencer Highway hosted the third annual Urban Cowboy reunion of bit players from the film and other "Gilleyrats."
But taking a longer view, Urban Cowboy and especially its double-length soundtrack album marked the point where, ironically, country music began leaving its roughneck beer-joint past behind to become the soundtrack of middle-class bedroom communities all over the Sun Belt. These ten albums help tell that colorful story, in equal measures of tackiness and classic tunes.
Alabama, My Home's In Alabama (1980) Greater success would come with the next year's Feels So Right and breakout hit "Love In the First Degree," but Alabama's debut was already full of the smooth Southern soft-rock that helped them become one of the most influential country acts of the past 30 years (see recent greatest-hits/tribute Alabama and Friends). Hoedown "Tennessee River" aside, it's geared much more toward the bedroom than the barroom, particularly on satin-sheets ballads such as "Why Lady Why." Dim the lights.
Charlie Daniels Band, Fire On the Mountain (1976) Honestly, Fire On the Mountain is a little too rowdy and redneck to be a true urban-cowboy album, not to mention a little too rock. But it is one of the fundamental outlaw-country albums, from wild-eyed opener "Caballo Diablo" to rebel-yell mission statements "Long Haired Country Boy" and "The South's Gonna Do It Again" to bluesy ballad "Georgia." But it's also a great record that's got "Orange Blossom Special," which the CDB performs in the film, so we're counting it.
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Mickey Gilley, Gilley's Smokin' (1976) Mickey Gilley proved he could do adult-contempoarary country with a dash of R&B on 1974 breakout "Room Full of Roses," but on Gilley's Smokin' he tapped into the primal early rock and roll spirit of his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis -- not least on rollicking opener "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time." This is a complete set, with ballads like a great reading of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me," but piano pounders like Little Walter's "My Babe" and gospel standby "I'll Fly Away" make steam shoot out of the album's ears.
Johnny Lee, Lookin' For Love (1980) Mickey Gilley may have co-owned the club, but Johnny Lee had the song that defined the movie with his agreeably smooth happy-ending ballad "Lookin' For Love." With the Texas City native's easygoing but assured baritone (a little like Don Willliams), the album offers plenty more where that came from, often punctuated by dramatic strings -- "Pickin' Up Strangers," "One In a Million," "Do You Love as Good as You Look" -- even as the grittier "Down and Dirty" approaches Waylon territory.
Juice Newton, Juice (1981) Born in New Jersey and raised in Virginia, Juice Newton provided more sass than the white-bread sweetness of Urban Cowboy linchpin Anne Murray. Juice was Newton's breakthrough for good reason, between the power-ballad double whammy of "Angel of the Morning" and "The Sweetest Thing (I've Ever Known)," respectable covers of the Everly Brothers and Elton John, and the killer "Queen of Hearts." "Headin' for a Heartache" even styles itself after Joan Jett... a little.
Dolly Parton, 9 to 5 and Other Odd Jobs (1980) To capitalize on the success of Parton's show-stopping title song to her box-office hit co-starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin -- which was deservedly nominated for an Oscar -- her record company somewhat awkwardly had Parton record an entire album of work-related songs (including, oddly, Woody Guthrie's "Deportee"). It's about as far away from the Parton of "Jolene" and "Coat of Many Colors" as a lump of coal is to a rhinestone, but still unmistakeably Dolly.
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Eddie Rabbitt, Horizon (1980) Another Yankee who helped define country music in the Urban Cowboy era, Eddie Rabbitt took to honky-tonk like a natural on early singles like "Two Dollars In the Jukebox." But Horizon was his masterpiece, a semi-repurposing of Elvis' Sun Records aura -- check out "Short Road to Love" -- that became a smash via brilliant singles "I Love a Rainy Night" and "Driving My Life Away." Big ballad "I Need to Fall In Love" is even more in line with the typical urban-cowboy sound.
Kenny Rogers, The Gambler (1978) Houston's own Kenny Rogers had flirted with stardom ever since his psych band the First Edition's great late-'60s single "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," but The Gambler is where the Roaster at last truly established himself as one of the great balladeers of his day. Besides the iconic title track and tremendous "She Believes In Me," The Gambler tosses in curious trifles like the Tony Joe White-ish "The Hoodooin' of Miss Fannie DeBerry" and salutes fellow Houston native Mickey Newbury on "San Francisco Mabel Joy."
Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Night Moves (1976) My uncle once told me that every man his age had a copy of Night Moves on cassette in his car. Not only is John Travolta's Urban Cowboy character Bud about my uncle's age, but listen to Night Moves today and apart from the absolute R&B barnburners ("Come to Poppa"), it's amazing how much of it you can hear on an average modern country radio station.
Various Artists, Live at Gilley's (1999) More than any other album on this list, sounds exactly like what went on at Gilley's -- because this 4-CD set 56 perfomances were ripped straight from the club's soundboard, duh. Accordingly, its four discs offers a wide cross section of acts who headed down Spencer Highway, from then up-and-comers (Roseanne Cash, the Kendalls), old-timers (Fats Domino, Ernest Tubb), regional stars (Freddy Fender) and outlaws (Johnny Paycheck), an accurate depiction of how broad Gilley's booking policy really was. Here's an Amazon link if you want to see all 56.
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