Urban Cowboy

By: Roughstock Staff

Last Updated: January 17, 2009 12:01 AM

The Urban Cowboy movement of the early '80s led country music away from its roots. The genre's move toward pop culture was popularized by John Travolta's movie, Urban Cowboy, and spurred on by Dolly Parton's movie  9 to 5 and the popularity of its title song.
In the early '80s, country attempted to crossover to a easy-listening pop audience. In many cases, Urban Cowboy country was '60s and '70s polished pop music with a hip, rock beat. The outlaw heroes of the 1970s -- Willie, Waylon, Johnny, and Merle -- faded into obscurity on the country scene. The biggest hits of the time were crossover tunes, including the Oak Ridge Boys "Elvira" and Juice Newton's "Queen of Hearts."
Although most of the songs and artists coming from Nashville in the late '70s and early '80s were forgettable, some artists produced excellent music. One of country biggest crossover stars was John Conlee, owner of one of the saddest voices in country music. Born and raised on a Kentucky tobacco farm, Conlee worked as a mortician after graduating from high school, but eventually landed a job as a disc jockey at a Fort Knox station. After moving to Nashville in 1971, Conlee established important music contacts, leading to a contract with ABC Records.
His initial releases failed to make much impression, but his fourth single, "Rose Colored Glasses," (a song he co-wrote with a newsreader at the radio station) made the country Top 5 in May 1978. That same year ABC Records was absorbed by MCA, for whom Conlee scored more than a dozen Top 10 hits, including "She Can't Say That Anymore," "I'm Only In It For The Love," "Backside of Thirty," and "Miss Emily's Picture." 
Conlee signed with Columbia Records in 1986, scoring several more Top 10 hits. His contract lasted only three years before he moved once again to 16th Avenue Records, but by that time, Conlee's commercial run had ended. Throughout his career, Conlee has been a champion for the working man, typified in songs such as "Busted," "Common Man," "Working Man," and "American Faces." In 1979, he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, the first new member in five years. Conlee still tours regularly, performs at the Grand Ole Opry and remains active in charity work.
Alabama, one of the most successful country acts of all time, also navigated the neocountry disco phase with incredible success. Their sound influenced numerous outfits of the 1980s, including Atlanta, Exile and Bandana, and, later, Restless Heart, Confederate Railroad, Desert Rose Band and the Kentucky HeadHunters.  

Initially formed in 1969 at Fort Payne, Alabama (formerly known as Wildcountry) the group was a semi-professional band with the nucleus of cousins Jeff Cook and Randy Owen, plus Teddy Gentry and John Vartanian. After signing to GRT Records at the beginning of 1977, they made their first mark on the country charts with "I Want to Be With You." In 1976, original drummer John Vartanian chose to pursue other interests, and the group spent several months as a three-piece band until they found fourth member, Mark Herndon. Larry McBride, a Dallas businessman, took an interest in the group and signed them to a management deal. He arranged a deal with MDJ Records, and the group's album, I Wanna Come Over, charted in the fall of 1979. Under the production of Harold Shedd, Alabama recorded one of their signature songs, "My Home's in Alabama." during this period. 

In the early 1980s, Alabama signed with RCA Records and retained their country connection with rural-pride anthems such as "Mountain Music" and "Roll On." Their twenty-one consecutive No.1 singles (spanning from 1981-1987) is a record, and the band owns thirty-two chart-toppers in all. All sixteen of their major-label studio albums have reached gold or platinum status. The band won Entertainer of the Year from the CMA (1982-1984) and the ACM (1982-1985), a period of dominance that earned them a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Reba McEntire is also a cinch for the Hall of Fame, with 22 No.1 singles to her credit. Her humble beginnings instilled a world-class work ethic in the Okie redhead, one of the premier female vocalists of all time. Discovered singing the national anthem at the 1974 National Finals Rodeo, she began an arduous journey to country superstardom. Greatly influenced by her small town upbringing (as well as the music of Patsy Cline) McEntire's early work was true honky-tonk country with a twist. Although her musical legacy during the early years at Mercury Records is often overlooked, McEntire cut several songs that helped to build the solid foundation to the career of one of the most acclaimed women in the history of country music. Her first single is classic Mercury Reba, "I Don't Wanna Be a One Night Stand." Although her early style is patterned after Patsy Cline, her own sass and emotion made the music her own, especially in her rendition of "Old Man River (I've Come to Talk Again)." Although she never released the third and final track included here, "A Cowboy Like You," it's classic Reba.

Roughstock's History of Country Music
Introduction Bill Monroe and Bluegrass ('40-'60) Outlaw Country (1970s)
The Beginnings ('20-'40) Cowboy Music (1940-1960) Urban Country (1980s)
Western Swing ('30-'50) Honky Tonk Music (1950s) Garth And New Country (1990s)
Acuff & The Grand Ole Opry (1940s) The Nashville Sound (1960s)  

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