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Travel Back to ‘Urban Cowboy’ Era

July 28, 1999 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Who’s the father of country music? ``The Singing Brakeman″ Jimmie Rodgers? Bill Monroe? Hank Williams?

How about John Travolta?

Mel Tillis was joking when he cited Travolta in the introduction to a song on a new boxed set tracking the ``Urban Cowboy″ era of country music in the early 1980s. But there is a kernel of truth in his comment.

Travolta ignited an explosion of country music’s popularity with his 1980 film ``Urban Cowboy.″

After the film, set largely at Gilley’s country music club in Houston, bars all over the country transformed themselves into honky-tonks, complete with back-wrenching mechanical bulls. Men who never had been near a horse started dressing like cowboys. Sales of country music doubled.

``John Travolta was responsible for making country come alive in this country,″ said Mickey Gilley, the namesake and star attraction at the Houston club. These days, he owns and performs at a Gilley’s in Branson, Mo.

In the early 1980s, Rosanne Cash’s classic ``Seven Year Ache″ was a hit; gritty singer Lacy J. Dalton sang about ``Hard Times″; and Razzy Bailey scored with the soul-influenced ``I Keep Coming Back.″

With 56 songs on four CDs, ``Live at Gilley’s″ tracks the ``Urban Cowboy″ era from its epicenter. Included are vintage performances by Tillis, Willie Nelson, Johnny Lee, Lacy J. Dalton, Ed Bruce, Loretta Lynn and Freddy Fender.

There are also rock ‘n’ rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis (Gilley’s cousin), Carl Perkins and Fats Domino, and old heroes like Ernest Tubb and Faron Young in some of their last performances.

In its heyday, Gilley’s packed in 6,000 people a night. Most of the top country music stars played there, and Gilley recorded the performances for his weekly radio show ``Live From Gilley’s.″ The show was syndicated to 500 radio stations from 1981 to 1989.

After a dispute with his partner, Gilley removed the tapes from the premises, which saved them from the 1989 fire that destroyed Gilley’s.

He held onto the tapes for years, unable to release the music because he didn’t have clearances from the performers. Three years ago, he sold the tapes to New Jersey record producer Chuck Enslin, who got clearances and negotiated a deal to release the tapes with QVC, the cable television home shopping channel.

The company has also culled tapes for full-length live CDs on Perkins, Lewis, Johnny PayCheck, the Bellamy Brothers, Fats Domino and Bobby Bare.

Clearances weren’t obtained for all the best Gilley’s performances. Conway Twitty’s estate, for one, refused, citing the late singer’s penchant for control of how his music was presented.

Although he has no financial interest, Gilley is helping promote the set. ``It’s good for me, too, because it carries my last name,″ he said. ``And to salvage this music.″

After selling ``Live at Gilley’s″ on QVC, the CD was released to record stores through subsidiary Q Records.

``Live at Gilley’s″ is part of a small boom of live country music being released. Billy Bob’s Texas Club in Fort Worth, Texas, has a similar series of live CDs, including an album recorded this year by Merle Haggard. Charlie Daniels has two CDs on his Blue Hat Records made from performances spanning back to the 1970s.

Gilley thinks the album provides a glimpse of a neglected era and gives newer country music fans a look at some of the stars of yesteryear.

``Gilley’s _ it’s gone. But here’s some of the magic.″