After the Fire Has Gone

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(Pictured: Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn at the American Music Awards in 1975.)

Unlike many radio stations, we take requests here. A reader asked about Conway Twitty: “One of the most successful country artists of all time. Now virtually forgotten. No legacy. How come?” What follows is my typical half-assed guess.

Harold Jenkins had an offer to play baseball from the Philadelphia Phillies, but he was drafted for service in Korea first. When he got home, he got a record deal from Sam Phillips, although nothing he recorded for Sun was released at the time. He became a rockabilly singer in 1956, changed his name to Conway Twitty (combining the names of two towns in Arkansas and Texas) and eventually hit the Hot 100 14 times between 1957 and 1962, including “It’s Only Make Believe,” which hit #1 in 1958 thanks in part to A) being a really good song and B) sounding remarkably like Elvis. Twitty was popular enough over the next couple of years to appear in three drive-in quickie films in 1960, including an appearance as himself in Sex Kittens Go to College starring Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld.

In 1965, Twitty began working with Nashville producer Owen Bradley, and after a handful of chart-scrapers, started hitting the country Top 10 in 1968. Over the next 25 years, until his death in 1993 at age 59, he charted an astounding 84 singles on his own and as a duet partner with Loretta Lynn. Only eight of them—eight!—missed the country Top 10, and two of those were separately listed B-sides of Top-10 hits. Of those 84 charted singles, 40 hit #1 (only George Strait has more) and 12 more peaked at #2.

Successful? Ya think?

A few of Twitty’s biggest country hits crossed to the pop chart, including: “Hello Darlin’,” “Fifteen Years Ago,” “Linda on My Mind,” and “Don’t Cry Joni.” In 1973, “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” became Conway’s biggest pop hit since 1960, reaching #22 on the Hot 100, although it’s pretty skeevy and hard to listen to now. His duet with Loretta, “After the Fire Has Gone,” also made the Hot 100, and you might recognize the duets “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone,” or “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” (Even though the latter was a B-side, it got a great deal of airplay in 1978.) For a stretch in the 1980s, Twitty scored #1 country hits with pop covers: “Rest Your Love on Me” (a Bee Gees song), the Pointer Sisters’ “Slow Hand” (also kinda skeevy), “The Rose,” “Heartache Tonight,” and “Three Times a Lady.”

With such success—a solid four or five hits a year, every year, for over two decades—how come Conway Twitty isn’t an icon on the order of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, or Merle Haggard? Here’s my guess: outlaws will always be cooler than law-abiding citizens. Cash and Jones were famous for livin’ hard, and in Hank’s case, dying young; Haggard was famous for having done time. Outside of his music, Twitty was probably best known for Twitty City, a Nashville entertainment complex that was also his home from 1982 until his death. Some of his songs were pretty cheesy, and by the end of his career, his distinctive delivery, with the famous crack in his voice, sometimes seemed like a parody of itself. His inclusion as a running joke in the TV series Family Guy doesn’t help his dignity any either. Neither does that name, to be honest.

His lack of legacy is also a function of time and style. Today’s young country stars invoke Hank, Cash, Jones, and Haggard as little more than catch-phrases. The artists they emulate and recognize as icons are people like Keith Urban, who had his first American hit in 1999, and Jason Aldean, who came on the scene in 2005, and not a guy who’s been dead for nearly a quarter of a century. Today’s country music has far more in common with the stadium rock of Bon Jovi and the R&B stylings of Bruno Mars than it does with polyester-clad love men like Conway Twitty.

All of the songs mentioned in this post are worthwhile listening, but if you want to hear a particular favorite of mine, check out “I Am the Dreamer (You Are the Dream),” the charting B-side of the #1 hit “Rest Your Love on Me” from 1981. It’s Conway Twitty the way he most often sounded: the signature twang in his voice and the sensual lyrics, plus an uncommonly pretty arrangement.

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10 responses

  1. also, “Conway” and “Twitty”

  2. I adore the phrase “polyester-clad love man” … and since every pendulum swings back someday, I eagerly await the day when a new wave of polyester-clad love men pushes the bro-country brigade aside.

    The pop chart for Oct. 23, 1976 (with Peter Cetera slaying the Disco Duck at Number One) is visible on your Twitter feed as I write this. And on a certain shallow level I’m perceiving some kinship between Conway Twitty and Chicago.
    Massive success plus faceless (and somewhat toothless) public image equals not much lasting impact as the generations pass.

  3. Porter Wagoner gets the same indifferent treatment as Conway Twitty. Known as Mr. Grand Ole Opry, Wagoner charted 81 singles from 1954–1983. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2002. In 1967, he introduced then-obscure singer Dolly Parton on his long-running television show, and they were a well-known vocal duo throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wagoner’s stage alter ego was Skid Row Joe.

  4. I met Mr. Twitty as a child when my family was living in Odessa. Texas. He was apparently on tour and had parked the tour bus at the house of a neighbor to visit an old friend. I don’t remember anything about the encounter except the name of said tour bus: The Twitty Bird.

  5. Great reply. Some other great Conway songs are “I’d Love to Lay You Down” (one of the few songs that treat middle aged sex as anything but a joke) and “That’s My Job”, an amazing song about paternal love.
    My favorite Conway fact: he owned a customized AMC Pacer(!).

  6. I never cared for Conway Twitty—and having only recently encountered “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” on an aircheck from the early 70s, you’re dead on about that.

    But—there is one song that goes on my all-time favorites—and Conway recorded it, with Sam Moore of Sam and Dave fame:

  7. For the record, I still love the Brook Benton original….but the Conway/Sam duet gives me chills and a warm feeling all at the same time.

    1. Brook Benton/Rainy Night in Georgia=quite possibly the greatest match of singer and song in pop history.

  8. Great choice on “I Am The Dreamer”, which was the only side of that single we played at KOMA. Ironically, Conway’s cover of “Rest Your Love On Me” felt *less* country than the Bee Gees’ original, which was already entrenched in the station’s top-40 gold category. The stronger “Dreamer” made it easy to ignore the #1 A-side, without pissing off the label.

    The 5th edition Whitburn Top Country Singles book shows Conway charted 97 titles, including the duets. It’s quite telling that the lowest-charter of all of those (#69) was an MCA retread in the wake of Twitty’s first Elektra single (and was immediately squashed by his second, “Slow Hand”.)

    The thing that struck me by Conway’s switch from MCA/Decca to Elektra (and Warner, after WEA subsequently transferred Elektra’s country roster to WB) was the concurrent upgrade in production quality. Suddenly, there was a real bottom end to his recordings that wasn’t there before. Nashville studios were generally late to letting the bass out of its cage, and once they finally did, the difference was profound. Little wonder that a fair number of country stations objected to playing what amounted to a flat-out rocker, when Conway’s “Heartache Tonight” showed up in the mail.

  9. […] 2.  “Fifteen Years Ago”/Conway Twitty. As mentioned here just last week. […]

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