Mickey Gilley is a true living legend when it comes to the history of country music and treating people with good times with his honky-tonks. This weekend, fans can watch him perform live at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center as he weaves the history of his music to the audience. Recently, we caught up with Mickey as he reflected on his success.
When it comes to his performances, Mickey says, “I’m still doing the same music. I’ll sing my hits and then if Johnny Lee is with me, he’ll do his hit songs, then we’ll do our ‘Urban Cowboy’ segment. If I’m by myself, I have an ‘Urban Cowboy’ segment midway through the show. I think it makes it interesting and entertaining. I do my best to make the concert sound as close as my recordings. Fans can expect that when they come to a show, they will hear me sound like what they hear on the radio. That’s what I try to put the music out there in a way that it should be presented to the audience.”
Many probably don’t realize how much of an influence Mickey Gilley has had on Kentucky’s honky-tonk music scene. In fact, back in the late 70s and early 80s, folks like Bobby Mackey and Greg Austin brought that honky-tonk sound back to Kentucky for their own music establishments. Bobby Mackey has one of the mechanical bulls used in “Urban Cowboy” at his honky-tonk in Wilder, Kentucky. Greg Austin and his band would perform in Texas and soon learn from folks like Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee. From the line dancing to keeping the crowd entertained, Greg and his crew took those lessons back to Austin City Saloon. As you could say, the rest is history and the magic work as both Bobby Mackey’s and Austin City Saloon are still around packing the rooms every weekend with country music fans.
“When I opened Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas, in 1971,” Gilley recalls, “I never dreamed that the club was going to become what it ended up. It was probably the number one nightclub that ever existed. A lot of it had to do with the fact that after struggling for 17 years in the music business, I was trying to follow my cousin Jerry Lee Lewis. I almost didn’t record “A Room Full of Roses” because I thought it sounded too much like my cousin. It hit in 1974 and made number one on the country charts.”
Then came the movie that most folks would recognize Mickey Gilley in – Urban Cowboy. “My partner installed a mechanical bull in the club and I thought it was a mistake,” Gilley remembers. “We got to film Urban Cowboy and that movie launched me and Johnny Lee into the stratosphere. For the first time in my life, everyone was wearing jeans, cowboy hats, and cowboy boots. I wasn’t even wearing cowboy hats at the time, but I put one on. The bottom line was, it was a big thing in my life because it opened so many doors for me as far as the music is concerned. It helped introduce the kind of music we were presenting in the club to a bigger audience. Everyone wanted to play Gilley’s to put on their resume they played there. It became a big thing.”
Mickey Gilley has succeeded in music because of his fans. It is no secret that they are the reason for his longevity in his career. Mickey recalled, “I am driven as far as my career’s concern in keeping the music alive. I tell a lot of people that it isn’t about the money; it’s about the music. I just enjoy walking out on stage and singing the music for the folks. Usually we do what we call a meet and greet after the show is over. I’ll go outside and sign autographs and take pictures. I’ll chat with the audience and tell them how nice it was having them come to the shows. Live music is what it’s really all about.”
Over the years, Mickey has had a few medical scares and accidents. However, it has never stopped him from performing for the fans. “I’ve been blessed. God has given me a great life as far as being able to walk out on that stage and perform the music,” said Gilley. “Even though I’ve had a hard time walking, I tell the people when I walk out I just turned 83, I look like I’m 50, and walking like I’m 90.”
Recently, Mickey’s close friend Joey Riley, passed away from colon cancer. Mickey would recall a funny story that involved Joey during our conversation. “He was really funny. Every time I would do ‘From the Window Up Above,’ I tell folks about him. One day while performing it, Joey looks up at me and asked about playing the song about the peeping Tom, the window song. I looked at him and asked what did he mean a peeping Tom and if he meant mean ‘From the Window Up Above.’ He said that’s it! Joey was always coming up with something on the show.”
Another funny moment during a show was when Joey would introduce Mickey and joke that he had sixteen and a half number one songs. “I would ask him what did he mean by just 16 ½,” Gilley said. “I would remind him it was 17. He would soon let me know that one was a duet, so I only sang half of the song.”
In closing, Mickey Gilley noted that, “the bottom line is, the folks gave me 17 number one records. Everyone asks when I’m going to retire and I reply with why should I retire? The people out there gave us seventeen strong number one hit songs. If they want to hear me do my music, I want to be able to go out there and sing.”
Be sure to check out Mickey Gilley’s official website at www.gilleys.com. Tickets are still available for his performance on Saturday, September 21, 2019, at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center. You can order them online at www.renfrovalley.com or by calling 1-800-765-7464.
Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website. The Berea College graduate has been a music journalist and historian for over 20 years. She enjoys providing concert photography, reviews, historical articles, red carpet event coverage, and exclusive interviews of your favorite musicians. Jessica is proud to be a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the FFA and 4-H Clubs. In 2018, she was named one of Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award Recipients. In 2019, she was a member of the Inaugural class of BRIGHT Kentucky as part of Leadership Kentucky. She has been featured on the Kentucky Music Preview podcast, Overtones radio show, WFKY Nashville News Roundup, KET, and more. Beyond music, she enjoys traveling, helping her community, collecting gnomes, and Volkswagens.