The movie Urban Cowboy was a modest hit upon its 1980 release. Its soundtrack, however, was a much different, more successful story.
The double LP spawned three country No. 1 hits (Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love,” Mickey Gilley‘s “Stand By Me” and Anne Murray‘s “Could I Have This Dance”), while its Kenny Rogers track, “Love the World Away,” peaked at No. 4. All four of those songs also reached the pop Top 40, as did two other tunes: Boz Scaggs’ “Look What You’ve Done to Me” and Joe Walsh’s “All Night Long.”
Beyond specific hits, the so-called “urban cowboy” movement created a country style of its own, rooted in melodic tunes that had soft rock leanings. One of the film’s producers, Irving Azoff, “had seen the massive acceptance of the California sound — the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt — which was rooted in country,” music coordinator Becky Mancuso-Winding told Texas Monthly.
“And you could already hear the Eagles’ influence on Nashville. Irving knew it was time for a crossover, and not just musically,” she added. “He’d looked at the disco movement and Saturday Night Fever. He knew Urban Cowboy could impact the way people dressed, ate, danced, listened.”
Although Azoff wanted the soundtrack to feature only the Eagles, the tracklist eventually expanded to include other artists and then-recent hits by groups such as the Charlie Daniels Band. It ended up being a great move: The album felt more like a great compilation than a mere movie soundtrack.
Here’s how’s all 18 tracks on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack stack up against each other today.
These upbeat instrumentals fit the dancefloor vibe of both the venue Gilley’s and the movie itself. While not the most essential tracks, they do convey the vibe and atmosphere of the time, as well as provide a connection between the film and soundtrack.
Love songs don’t get much more sentimental than this Anne Murray hit, which is a perfect wedding first dance song.
Another song known more as a live cut, this track is a classic Seger cut driven by urgent vocals, boogie-woogie piano and organ, and kicky horns. If the studio version of the song has a flaw, it’s a smidge repetitive, which knocks it down a few notches.
Another previous country No. 1, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” very much fits the vibe of Urban Cowboy.
Originally released in July of 1978 on Gilley’s Flyin’ High, “Here Comes the Hurt Again” was re-cut for Urban Cowboy. The grizzled piano ballad is a soundtrack highlight, as its lyrical laments are the equivalent of a good crying-in-your-whiskey session.
Originally written and performed by Michael Martin Murphey, “Cherokee Fiddle” was re-cut by Lee for Urban Cowboy.
“Azoff came out one night and heard me do “Cherokee Fiddle,” which was a big hit for me in Houston,” Lee told Texas Monthly. “He said, ‘You want to sing it in a movie?’ Well, people were bulls–tting me all the time. So I said, ‘Yeah, sure, just as soon as I finish this watermelon. You bet.'”
Interestingly enough, however, the tune didn’t become a country hit for Lee until a remixed version was released in 1982.
“Darlin'” was cut by both Frankie Miller and David Rogers before Raitt recorded it for Urban Cowboy — and made it a showcase for her melancholy voice.
It’s surprising that this evocative Fogelberg song wasn’t a single, as it has all the elements of a hit: a melodic guitar line, catchy hook and emotional vocals.
The more common version of this Walsh solo song is the one heard on Eagles Live. However, the smoldering bar-band rocker, which features raucous piano, was a swinging success that reached the Top 20 of the pop charts.
According to Mancuso-Winding, Scaggs and songwriter David Foster were asked to write “a seductive love song, something with some tenderness” for Madolyn Smith’s character, Pam.
“We only got the tape the night before shooting the scene, and the song wasn’t done yet,” she recalled. “It was rough, just a beat and a melody with Boz humming. And it was magical.”
The finished product is indeed soft-rock perfection that became a huge adult contemporary hit.
“Boz saw the footage of John and me slow-dancing to the instrumental, and that’s when he added lyrics and the title, “Look What You’ve Done to Me,”” Smith told Texas Monthly. “Before that they called it “Pam’s Theme.””
One of two CDB songs included on the soundtrack, “Falling in Love for the Night” has a breezy vibe that fits the movie’s dancefloor scenes.
Rogers was enjoying peak popularity when he appeared on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack. “Love the World Away” boosted his cause even further, as the song is a throwback to Glen Campbell‘s genial ’70s ballads.
This easygoing song, which was co-written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey, was a hit long before Urban Cowboy: The song reached No. 8 on Billboard‘s country singles chart in 1975.
The crossover made sense: The song features Frey’s keening lead vocals; Bernie Leadon contributing twangy guitar and mandolin; and the entire band unfurling gorgeous multi-part harmonies.
“Lyin’ Eyes” nabbed a Grammy for Best Pop Performance By a Group and was also nominated for Record of the Year.
This sparse duet was the perfect ending to the soundtrack. Frequent collaborators Souther and Ronstadt enlisted Ricky Skaggs on mandolin for a tearjerker: “Hearts that never break / They just won’t mend / Without breaking again.”
The namesake of the club Gilley’s, both in the movie and in real life, put a tender country spin on the Ben E. King classic. The musician covered the song at the behest of producer Jim Ed Norman: “I thought what it expressed would be great in the movie,” Norman told Texas Monthly. “So I took all day working on it with Gilley. He’d sing the vocal, then I’d ask for another, and another, and another. Finally around 4PM, I saw him leaning against the wall, exhausted.”
Raitt sang “Don’t It Make Ya Wanna Dance” in Urban Cowboy — an appropriately high-profile platform for this pedal steel- and fiddle-driven tune, which is a perfect showcase for Raitt’s smoky voice.
A perfect opening track, the dust-kicking country-rocker “Hello Texas” — which features rollicking harmonica and sooulful female backing vocalists — is an ode to the great Lone Star State. “Hello Texas,” Buffett sings. “Sure is good to see me a friend.”
When Mancuso-Winding gave Lee cassettes of songs to consider covering, choosing one was a snap. “Within the first 15 songs, I pulled out “Lookin’ for Love,”” he told Texas Monthly. “I couldn’t believe I hadn’t written it myself: It was the story of my life up ’til then. I changed the rhythm on it, turned it into a two-step, and they put it in the movie.”
It’s no wonder “Lookin’ for Love” is so successful: Lee’s world-weary voice is a perfect match for the lyrics.