Careening, Tricia Bown slammed her heels into the lifeless sides of Buford—a gyrating mechanical bull at the Vancouver honky-tonk, Bronco’s. The 19-year-old had begged Whitey, the bull’s operator, to let her ride at nine, the highest speed and one that regularly left men walking like Walter Brennan for a week. She pleaded she had ridden well at five and seven. “Okay,” breathed Whitey, and for 30 seconds Bown rode like a Prairie twister, hair and cowboy hat flying through smoke-fogged air to cries of “attaboy cowboy” and a standing ovation from
the 100 Coca-Cola cowboys and cowgirls watching.
Buford is one symbol of what has come to be called Urban Cowboy after the John Travolta movie released in June. Since then yippee-yi-oh western in its most romantic form has rolled up the West Coast of the U.S., into Vancouver and begun to track east. In Toronto, this month saw the opening of the Wild Wild Mad West Show in the lakefront Seaway Hotel: three hours of chuckwagon dinner theatre starring 25 Dalton gang look-alikes and saloon types. In Vancouver, clubs with names like Gamblers and Outlaws recently have risen from the sparkling ashes of failed discos. They’re packed every night with suburban cowboys dressed like Howdy Doody in $200 Tony Lama eel-skin cowboy boots, seven-snap satin cowboy shirts and silver belt buckles sporting turquoise stones the size of robin’s eggs.
In Vancouver, cowboy hats float like boats above most crowds. Country-rock bands that have starved in seedy upcountry legion halls and dark beer parlors are dazedly turning down booking after booking.
Following half a decade of brittle posturings and the airless computerized music of disco, a return to the roots of country, even a tarted-up downtown country, is a refreshing change. As music, Urban Cowboy has little to do with The Grand Ole Opry and bluegrass; that’s traditional country music and that will be around long after Urban Cowboy is remaindered on the late show. What is drawing the tattered, bored ears of the new country fan is rooted in the guitars and sweet pedal steel of Sun Belt pop—a potent Texas brew combining equal parts countryand-western lament and rock ’n’ roll bite. Also called Outlaw Country, it was born in roadhouses around Austin, Tex., in the early 1970s, dished out by the weathered likes of Waylon Jennings andWillie Nelson, and polished by loud ole boys from the new South such as Charlie Daniels and Alabama. Seven country hits, most from the Urban Cowboy movie sound track, are currently at the top of pop music charts. The sound track owned No. 1 on North American country charts most of the summer with an unprecedented four No. 1 singles plucked from the album.
Since the spring, film, fashion, even advertising have slammed on a Stetson. Witness the movies: Electric Horseman, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Honeysuckle Rose. And soon to be cantering into your theatres: Heaven’s Gate, Clint Eastwood’s Any Which Way You Can, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. In Canada, even the sweet attraction of a pedal-steel guitar is given added juice by the cockiness, vitality and winner’s aura of the Canadian West. Heck, thanks to J.R. Ewing and his sagebrush soap Dallas, cowboy is even sexy.
Certainly the success of stadium-size Gilley’s, near Houston, Tex., which can hold up to 6,000 patrons at $10 to $15 a hat, has convinced several Canadian club owners that the future is in silver boot-tips and bolo ties. Vancouver’s Derek Forbes, 39, is a believer. In the past decade, his partner’s venerable old Rainier Hotel in Gastown has donned the finery of Paddy’s, an Irish pub, and then Dimples, a disco with $200,000 worth of state-of-the-art sound and light equipment. “Disco died a sudden death at the end of 1979,” he sighs. “One weekend we were full, the next empty.” A competing disco had reopened successfully as Cowboys, so Forbes took a sledgehammer to Dimples’ mirrored walls and opened in June as Bronco’s. And the $200,000 disco electronics?
Says Forbes ruefully: “We now have one terrific sound system for a cowboy bar.”
Bruce Judd, 39, took over the fading Tramps disco in Gastown and opened Cowboys in April after “getting drunk with an L.A. fashion designer one night” and being convinced that West, in the short term, was best. He, too, is not disappointed. Cowboys is packed nightly, with increasingly lavishly dressed buckaroos and buckarettes. On weekends, lineups snake down Alexander Street and Judd has recently opened Cowboys II, with more clubs planned. Uptown,a cavernous former strip-cumGreek nightclub and new wave bar will emerge shortly, $350,000 later, as Outlaws. At least three more are planned for the next few months. Sniffing the air for sagebrush, almost all existing discos in Vancouver have at least one western night a week.
Further east, club owners have yet to feel the suburbanization of cowboy. In Calgary, where cowboy hats on the street scarcely cause a flutter of an eyebrow, three barroom bulls are in operation and the huge Refinery will shortly reopen as The Ranchman’s Downtown. But clubs called Cowboys are becoming ubiquitous. There are nine in Texas, one opening this month in Toronto’s Village by the Grange and a western clothing store with the same name recently opened in Sudbury. In Toronto, upscale toggeries such as Urban Cowboy, High Noon and Western Corral service executive cowpokes with $1,600 boots and $365 suede cowboy shirts. Drawls Robin Steakley of New York’s chic western boot store, To Boot: “It’s more than a trend. It’s a stampede.” Other retailers, however, question whether the trend will root in the East. “Toronto will go a little country,”
says Dann Finn of Urban Cowboy, “but you won’t see people walking down Bay Street bowlegged in tight black pants.” In Quebec as well, where Un Cowboy dans la Ville doesn’t open until next month, hugely popular country-andwestern remains the sole preserve of loyal blue-collar and rural fans. Elias Dabby of Kellam’s of Montreal western outfitters recently returned from a Western Canadian swing bemoaning
what he sees as the continental pretensions of Montrealers,which have resulted in an insignificant increase in his sales while those of competitors in the West have gone up by as much as 40 per cent.
The question of why western and why now, when posed to former disco dollies and dandies who wouldn’t know a bridle from a brandy alexander, is usually answered by the word fun. “This just isn’t as plastic as disco,” says 19-year-old Randi Smith of Vancouver. “If people feel raunchy, they can dance raunchy.” He’s outfitted in a dark $75 rabbit-fur felt hat, dark-blue half-open cavalry tunic and finely tooled pointytoed cowboy boots. As he floats through the smoke and din of Cowboys, the floor moves with dozens of booted feet “stomping it out.” They’re dancing the sophisticated versions of the CottonEyed Joe or the Texas Four Corners complete with the sweet virginal sway of the two-step, occasionally throwing in a guilty disco syncopation before catching themselves. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to dance,” says Gwen Maroney, 22, from under a 10-
‘Cowboys are the last real men alive ’
year-old Grey Cup souvenir Stetson. “You can make a fool of yourself.” Anyone who has sweated through unfamiliar polkas at a wedding can get by and the result, as at the best of wedding dances and even on a honky-tonk dance floor, can be an exuberant, elbows-high, hands-on stomp with strangers. For the young, especially the urban young calcified by the airless formality of disco, the old dances of their rural cousins come as a happy revelation.
Inevitably, a make-believe lifestyle generates disposable fashions. “Do you realize,” asks Bronco’s Forbes, “how many white three-piece suits are hanging in closets right now?” Gerald Taback of Vancouver’s Corral Shop says orders for western hats are backed up six months to a year. Glenn Murdoch of Calhoun’s Hat Shop, also in Vancouver, has been a retailer for 40 years and says western hat demand in the past six months is unprecedented. His sales are up 300 to 400 per cent over last year, with the percentage of western hat sales soaring from 10 per cent two years ago to 75 per cent today. Says Taback: “We used to be happy with $800 on a Saturday. Now if we don’t do $5,000 we’re unhappy.” Customers might buy calfskin boots for $250, a Biltmore furfelt hat for $150 or maybe the chink of spurs for $15 to $400 (gold-gilded). “And we’re still at the bottom of the demand cycle,” says Taback optimistically.
“The East hasn’t even begun.”
Both longtime western outfitters and veteran pickers share the sentiment of Jamie Rogers, owner of Stampede Tack Limited in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, when he says, “Style always outlasts fashion.” Still, even as real pickup cowboys hang up their hats in protest against the blossoming of the drugstore imitation, country rockers are nervously viewing their noisy new fans. “This is the first time I’ve ever been ‘in,’ ” says Eric Lindstrom, guitarist for Spokanebased Stone Johnny. The almost disbelieving joke making the rounds of Vancouver pop circles asks: What do you call a rock musician who starts playing country? Answer: Employed. Cam Molloy, 15-year veteran of country-andwestern poverty and leader of the Vancouver band, The Molloy Gang, is still recovering. “It was normal until May,” he marvels. “Then I went on vacation and when I got back my phones were burning up.”
Aside from the demand for the music, cement-city cowboy has inevitably churned speculation about the Duke Wayne symbolism of it all and what its popularity signifies. Certainly, a knuckle-biting era that generates books with titles such as Real Men: Sex and Style in an Uncertain Aye can find temporary relief in the bovine verities of the open range. “When times get tough
Taback: sniffing the air for sagebrush
we look for simple answers,” says University of British Columbia psychologist Stanley Coren, “and cowboys only come in two varieties: good and bad, smart and dumb.” Certainly the attitude of women toward Urban Cowboy is not traditional: they like it. There is no gingham on the dance floor and the image is cowgirl not schoolmarm. Thelma Ritter in The Misfits summed up the
attraction perfectly two decades ago when she turned to Marilyn Monroe and said of an aging but virile Clark Gable, “Cowboys are the last real men alive.” In Gilley’s, in L.A.’s Palomino Club or Vancouver’s Cowboys, women are apt to do the asking on the dance floor and often outnumber men three to two. “Forward women,” says Judd in the cluttered office of Cowboys II. “It’s so noticeable because it’s so different from disco.”
Like most fashions, however, and unlike its true-grit country-and-western underpinnings, Suburban Cowboy tends to dissolve under close scrutiny. If it thrives, and it likely will, it will be because the music is living and vital, the dancing raunchy and social and the beer ice cold. Still, fads can exact a peculiar cost. Derek Forbes has survived his Irish pub and his disco. Now he stands in his straw cowboy hat, Gilley’s belt buckle and nosepicker boots as cars full of West Vancouver kids putter up Carral Street. “I wonder where we’ll be 18 months from now,” he snorts, a man tuned to the human comedy. “The club will probably be featuring big bands and I’ll be greeting you at the door in a tuxedo.”
With files from Barbara Matthews in Toronto, Anne Beirne in Montreal and Lawrence O'Toole in New York.
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