Awww, you sure look beautiful tonight. Come a little closer, baby. I know you’re tired, and you’ve been working all day. You deserve some attention, and that’s why I’m gonna hold you close and love you all night long.
OK, so it doesn’t work as well in print, but come-ons like these helped Conway Twitty rack up 40 No. 1 country singles (a chart feat unequaled before a few weeks ago, when George Strait repeated it), and establish a persona as a smooth seducer, whipping a predominantly female fan base into a frenzy every time he opened his mouth. Twitty sang in a low-register growl that suggested that what happened after the end of the song was gonna be something else. Other singers mined the same territory (and Barry White carried out a parallel seduction on R&B fans), but no one could get you into the metaphorical sack as tenderly, respectfully or efficiently as Conway.
It turned out there was real value in making music for adults. When the sexual revolution moved from the streets to the bedroom, Twitty was there waiting. This music was, in a very real sense, a marital aid, helping grownups to communicate with one another. Twitty’s oft-stated goal was to say the things women wished men would say, and that men wished they could bring themselves to say.
Like many older artists, Twitty was supplanted on the radio by country’s so-called “Class of ’89,” “hat acts” like Garth Brooks and Clint Black who boasted broad crossover appeal but whose approach to sex stopped firmly at the bedroom door. In this market, there seemed to be little logic in appealing mostly to women when one could play equally to everyone, and little enthusiasm for chasing the older listeners who were simpatico with Twitty’s sensibility. When Twitty suddenly died from an abdominal aneurysm in 1993, there was plenty of flattery but little imitation. Male singers emphasized their rebelliousness, their devotion to family values and, over the last several years, their macho redneck bona fides—not their skill in the sack. And so Twitty’s lover-man style went by the wayside for the next decade.
But as the reality set in that country’s sales and airplay were and would continue to be female-driven, a wildly effective tool for attracting distaff listeners was bound to return eventually. Thus emerged Jeff Bates—like Twitty, a native Mississippian whose smooth bedside manner is informed and enriched by his rural roots. The single that turned his already growing female following into something approaching a cult was 2004’s “Long, Slow Kisses,” a half-spoken, half-sung mea culpa from a man who admits he’s been neglecting the needs of his significant other—and is ready to make up for it with some afternoon delight.
Bates’ current single, “No Shame,” features a similar scenario: the singer is so overcome with love-fueled lust that he rushes to the house to sweep his beloved into his arms. Both singles demonstrate how Bates has learned the secret that kept Twitty’s overtures from sounding like creepy come-ons: an upfront admission of vulnerability. In “No Shame,” Bates declares that he knows his friends are laughing at him for preferring to spend time with his gal, but he doesn’t care. He makes himself a female fantasy, a man so overcome with affection that macho posturing is impossible.
Bates is no longer the only one making country radio hits by whispering Twitty-inspired sweet nothings. If Josh Turner’s 2003 hit “Long Black Train” sounded as if it had been written in the 1950s, his new “Your Man” could have beamed in from Twitty’s mid-’70s prime. Blessed, like Twitty and Bates, with a subwoofer-testing baritone that telegraphs masculinity with every note, Turner slides confidently into “Your Man” like he’s slipping an arm around his honey’s waist. It’s a frisky little gem about nothing more complicated than coming home after a hard day’s work and realizing that your wife still gives you the tingles. It’s also the most playful of the current crop of Con-wannabes, its pedal steel and fiddle dancing together like high-stepping lovers without mashing one another’s feet.
Dierks Bentley’s “Come a Little Closer” takes itself more seriously. Over a brooding rhythm chug and shimmering guitar line, Bentley prescribes sexual healing for a relationship in trouble, and helpfully suggests physical nudity as a route to direct communication. “I feel like letting go of everything that stands between us,” he sings, starting with the clothing and working from there. It’s the most explicit of the new wave of Conway-style hits, and the most explicitly indebted to the man himself: the line “I feel like laying you down” is a direct call-back to Twitty’s 1980 single, “I’d Love to Lay You Down.”
Billy Currington’s “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right” doesn’t bother with sex-as-communication psychology. Instead, Currington simply offers to do whatever it takes to satisfy you, from one touch to nonstop overnight mattress dancing. Over a languid groove, Currington offers a play-by-play that would be positively filthy if it weren’t couched in euphemism. Like Bates’ “Long, Slow Kisses,” the singer in “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right” presents himself as an ideal, a man whose own pleasure is irrelevant to him and who is carefully responsive to his lover’s every moan and glance. Bentley wants to “wash all your hurt away,” but Currington is just bound and determined to get you off.
Of course, Twitty was about a lot more than carnal gymnastics, as two recent cover versions of his classics suggest. Blake Shelton took 1988’s “Goodbye Time” back to the radio a few months ago, while Collin Raye soars on a new rendition of 1959’s “It’s Only Make Believe.” Each describes the way that love sometimes grows cold, whether the sex is hot or not. They’re a good reminder to the current class of lotharios that a good, long talk the morning after the lovin’ is important, too.