JAM Magazine Main Features

Mickey Gilley

Riding the Success of a Movie and a Mechanical Bull

For years now, whenever I saw someone wearing a cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, and jeans, I thought they were the silliest things I had ever seen. What was the matter with these people? How come they couldn't dress normal like any sensible human being? Did they think they were special or something? Ah, yes. Maybe they acted like that because they listened to country music. Ah, that's it, country music. Yuck!

Being open minded as I am, when I found out that Eddie Rabbit, Mickey Gilley, and Johnny Lee were going to be in concert, I decided it was about time that I indoctrinate myself into the world of country music and see exactly what all this hoopla was about the country and western scene that in the past few months has apparently been sweeping the country.

I am not going to be ashamed to admit that I enjoyed myself as much, if not more, at this concert, than most of the rock concerts I have been to. There was nothing elaborate about the stage. The lighting was quite simple, the PA system was not loud and overbearing and you could actually carry on a conversation with someone while the group was playing without screaming. This was one of the most relaxed and comfortable atmospheres I had ever seen. And, the shock to end all shocks. I didn't see or smell one lit joint the entire night. Is this what country music is all about?

"Country music is really songs," answered Mickey Gilley in a soothing Texan drawl, "I think people can relate to. That is what country music is really all about, our everyday life, it is actually our culture. It has been around, oh, I'd guess...Stephen Foster probably said it best when he said 'Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair." It wasn't called country back then, but all of the tunes that were written many, many years ago were usually written about everyday life. Now, anything that is performed that has to do with life is classified in the country music field.”

"Hard rock music appeals to the kids on account of the beat and that type of situation. Elvis did a lot for music when he combined what we called back then 'hillbilly music,' rhythm and blues, and black music together and they called it rock and roll. Actually, what we are doing at the present time is a spin-off from the rock and roll era. I was raised in the rock and roll field, and if music hadn't of changed a tiny bit, I don't think there would have been room for people like Mickey Gilley, Ronnie Milsap, Conway Twitty."

Gilley believes that John Travolta, the star of The Urban Cowboy, has accomplished basically for country music what he did for disco and the late 50's early 60's type music with the films Saturday Night Fever and Grease. That is to draw the young people into the theatre and make them aware that country music is not just something that cowboys can enjoy. It is for everyone.

“I think that Travolta did a lot for reaching out and grabbing the young set,” points out Gilley. “They were used to seeing and listening to the things he created with films like Grease and Saturday Night Fever, and when he did The Urban Cowboy, a lot of young folks went out just to see Travolta. When they saw this type of music and heard it, they said, “Hey, this music is not bad.’

"A lot of the younger set did not realize that country music is something that you can enjoy. I think anybody can enjoy country music. I don't like the word western, country and western, because our country is known for music that you can relate to and that is really what it is all about. I think the reason there is a phenomenon going on in the country scene is that everybody wants to get back to the basics of life, like Waylon said in his song, "Luckenback, Texas." Let's get back to the basics of what is going on."

Country music has definitely changed over the past 20 years, and no one knows that better than Gilley himself. Born in Fairly, Louisiana, Gilley began playing the piano at an early age with his cousins, the great Jerry Lee Lewis, and the evangelist Jimmy Swaggered. The three of them were born within six months of one another and to this day are very close. Gilley says he was greatly influenced by Jerry Lee and the style of piano playing he created, and it is very much a part of his music today.

"Fifteen years ago, if we could move the clock back," explained Gilley, "and you and I were sitting here at the present time, you would not like the country music scene. It was steel guitar and fiddle or you didn't get your record played on country stations.

"What has happened to the music scene started happening probably four or five years ago. The country stations now are what the Top 40 stations were 15 years ago. There is no more twanging hillbilly type sound played on the radio. You might find it somewhere, but the majority of the country stations that have big ratings, are the ones that program the music like the Top 40 programmed years ago.

"For instance, a song I performed onstage, "Lying Again," that's really not country. Fifteen years ago, you couldn't have gotten that played on a country and western station because it was considered pop, rock and roll, or middle of the road. Now, you can get away more with the country music scene because the way people in the radio business have changed. There were a lot of these people involved with rock music that said, 'Hey, I really don't care for this music, I am going to move to the country station.' When they moved to the country stations that started programming basically what was rock and roll. That is the reason that the music has changed a tiny bit."

To hear the name Gilley, one almost immediately thinks of the club that bears his name in Pasadena, Texas. Opened in 1971, it became an extremely successful venture for Gilley. Another Item at Gilley's that also became popular was the infamous mechanical bull that was dramatized in The Urban Cowboy. "The mechanical bull was Installed in Gilley's way before the movie came out," confessed Gilley. "It was the idea of my business partner Sherwood Cline, and when that bull was put into Gilley's, I thought that it was really bad taste to have this particular contraption.

"You know, after all, the mechanical bull was used to train rodeo riders. Can you imagine the band up onstage singing and performing, people dancing to our music, and some guy over on the north forty riding this bronc, this mechanical contraption, with it going wang, wang, wang in the background.

"Believe it or not, It did catch on, and it brought more people into the club. I swear that my business partner can look into a crystal ball sometimes and see what is going to happen in the future. We now own the copyright to the mechanical bull and we produce them. Sold quite a few too."

It is hard to believe that one movie has had such a dramatic impact on the country music field as the Urban Cowboy has. Not only has it changed people's attitude about the music, it has also increased sales in the western wear Industry by tenfold.

"I was talking to some people the other day in a western wear store,” related Gilley, "and they said I wouldn't believe what the film The Urban Cowboy has done for western wear. A lot of people say that western wear is a very comfortable attire. And, it's not only comfortable, it looks good.”

"I know that when I was in Europe, I was wearing this cowboy hat, jeans, and these cowboy boots, and people were staring at me. There this one lady in Italy that came up to me and tried to talk to me and I couldn’t understand what she said. The interpreter told me, 'She thinks that you gorgeous.' She had never seen anything like a Texan over in Rome and here I am walking around like we dress here every day and they were really getting off to it.

"The cowboy way of life is completely different than what is projected at present time. The cowboy way of back when a cowboy was the cowboy was a very hard life. Let's face it, the chic of the cowboy hat, cowboy boots, blue jeans and western vest-like shirt has kind of caught on because it is stylish and people enjoy it But, you wouldn't go out dressed the way I am now to go and rope cows. I wouldn't put on my best pair of boots to go and wander around in cow manure and everything else."

Now I don't believe that you can give all of the credit for the resurgence country music around the U.S. to one movie. The past few years have seen a change in the country scene that has made it more accessible to people allowing it to transcend all age barriers. That's something rock has been unable to do with any type of consistency.

"Well, I haven't been involved in the rock scene that much to know anything about it," said Gilley simply, "so it’s hard for me to make a comment. I just enjoy music. I like some rock music mainly because I have a 14 year old son who loves some of the tunes that I am not familiar with. The only reason I am familiar with them is because he likes them and he listens to FM stations.

"When I signed with CBS, I went to London and did my little bit with all of these big people. Boz Scaggs came out and I said, 'Who in the hell is he? I didn't know him. I got up and left because his music was too loud for me. But, he has a song on The Urban Cowboy album I think is fantastic. I began to recognize who he was, what he was all about, and he has some damn good music. Had I known who he was at the time, I might have said 'Hey, let me see if I can get into this guy like everybody else is into him.' Here this guy has platinum and gold albums, the whole bit. Hell, I haven't even gotten a gold album or a gold single, so you know, here I am, Jesus Christ, who is this guy.

"As I said before, I just enjoy music as a whole, and I like some of the rock acts. I think that Kenny Rogers is super. I think that my cousin Jerry Lee Lewis is probably one of the greatest performers that ever walked on stage. I was as excited as Johnny Lee when he got a gold album for Looking For Love as if it would have been mine because I have been involved with him all of this time. I have a good time. I love my life the way, it is and I don't care about being a superstar. I just love to perform for folks. and that is what my life is all about."