This reviewer’s first encounter with Conway Twitty came at the Asheville (North Carolina) Civic Center in the summer of 1966. It was my very first live concert, my father taking me there to see Buck Owens & The Buckaroos. Opening up were Waylon Jennings and a then relative newcomer, Conway Twitty. After Twitty ambled through his first country charting song “Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart”, my dad shook his head and commented, “the boy ain’t country”. Twitty was, after all, a crossover from the ranks of the Beatles-beaten rockabilly scene.
Now we move forward to 1974. I’m watching my dad get his haircut at El Toro, a chic, redneck unisex barbershop in Kannapolis, NC, the textile mill capital of the universe. It seemed that all the men in the chairs that day were going for one distinct style — the big hair, neo-vampire look, held together by gallons of hair-spray and made popular by country music’s first ‘adult contemporary’ star — Conway Twitty. Take away the hair, and Twitty favored Alabama governor George Wallace. The hair, the open shirt, and lots of gold rings were the trappings of white, middle-aged Southern malehood in the ’70s.
Born Harold Lloyd Jenkins in 1933, Conway Twitty became the unlikely icon of the Southern ladies’ man. He spent most of his boyhood in Helena, Arkansas, and haggled over whether to play professional baseball or become a rock ‘n’ roller. Uncle Sam ended his athletic aspirations when Jenkins was drafted for service in Korea. After the war, he combined the names of towns in Arkansas and Texas to obtain his deep-fried stage moniker. Years later, when he began his fortuitous collaborations with “first lady of country music” Loretta Lynn, there wasn’t a trace of his blues or rockabilly roots. Twitty personified the smooth Nashville sound, infusing “pop/country” with subtle innuendo. The sultry voice we can understand. But the look? In all likelihood, Twitty’s impact on women was less a factor than his modeling for sex-hungry gents. Like chocolate-covered cherries, Conway Twitty represented what men thought their ladies wanted.
Notwithstanding, Nashville country casts a curious spell, and Twitty piled up 40 number one hits over a quarter-century. Included on Love Songs are 14 Twitty tracks dedicated solely to amorous adventure. Among the highlights are the classics “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” (the more popular version covered by Charlie Pride), “I’d Love to Lay You Down”, and the talking “Happy Birthday Darlin'”. Twitty even wrote one of his all-time best-sellers in “(I Can’t Believe) She Gives It All to Me”. For those who came of age in the era, these songs will bring back memories of Ronco TV commercials, fish fries, and love-making — on shag carpet. As this collection lumbers along, the whine of steel guitars gives way to the warm hum of a synthesizer. Twitty was a slick as waxed linoleum.
The best moments are the scant two duets with the incomparable Loretta Lynn. No matter what Nashville did to fully pastuerize country music, it could never engineer from the coal miner’s daughter her rich, earthy voice. Hearing Lynn sing conjures up images of skinny, barefoot kids on the steps of one-room schoolhouses in the hills of eastern Kentucky — as photographed by Mary Wolcott for the FSA during the Depression. It’s her aching Appalachian cry set against Twitty’s Deep South, tenant farm foreman drawl, creating some of the most electrifying inter-regional harmonies in recorded music. It’s a shame more of their duets were not included on this collection.
Love Songs is a nice thematic collection from one of Nashville’s biggest superstars, with big hair to match. But is it real country? Only if you believe that Nashville is Music City, USA.