Overall, country music has seen its ups and downs. Interestingly enough, these highs and lows can often be attributed to the fickle public (and damned music critics) more so than the music itself. But, in this supposed post-ironic world, a newfound taste for this style has developed. Just four years ago, a scene in an independent record store in Athens, Georgia produced the expected response to country music: One clerk read the lyrics of the latest Tim McGraw release aloud to another while the two guffawed mercilessly. Then, of course, post-irony, a Tears for Fears tune was cued up and blasted through the speakers. No disrespect to Tears for Fears, but this scene viewed from the outside lacked enough distinction made to warrant the belittling. (Here’s betting one of those clerks has a Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood track on his Tunes library today.)
Granted, the fringe listeners always want to discern. They’ll take Miranda Lambert alright, but only a truly unconcerned-with-cool critic like Stephen Thomas Erlewine will stand up for Kenny Chesney. Admittedly, selective dissociation should get harder the more records one listens to. What seems so specific to younger ears bleeds here and there after a few years under the belt.
In 1983, Conway Twitty gave the world a country-pop gem, Lost in the Feeling. The record boasted several top hits on the country charts and an uncredited Naomi Judd on the cover to go along with Twitty’s severely hairsprayed ‘do. What is exceptional beyond the 26-year wait for a release: How the commercial crossover gambit was so effectively recorded. Like a Rorschach blot, it is what you want it to be. One can hear country or pop or the mixture of the two. Twitty’s voice remains his main weapon, both in cadence and phrasing. But he also knows enough to gather the best crew around him, and the crack production proves to be the secret knife in the pocket.
The flow of the whole seems effortless, as it compares to a breeze on the first perfect day of the year. Twitty’s vocals are a curious and appealing mix of velvet and sand, and the songs barely reach the four-minute mark, with the total time clocking in at just over a half-hour. This consideration to length is appreciated. Get in. Get out. Do it right. What may have be mistaken for sleek by the country traditionalists should be understood as craft. Take a genre, and make it your own.
The proof of success, though, can be found in the songs. The title track rings out like a prototype of what country-pop should always be: brief and touching, with instrumentation keeping it buoyant at all times. Twitty’s cover of the smash Eagles’ hit, “Heartache Tonight”, rephrases the ominous threat of the original into a sad, inescapable fact. Another cover and hit for Twitty, “Three Times a Lady” (by the Commodores), does not translate as well. It seems a bit too staged to be effective; however, this is the only low point on Lost in the Feeling.
The world changes quickly. New ideas and forms can quickly change from exciting to annoying, but sometimes these change back. Twitty had some success with this in the ‘80s, but it may be now that true appreciation shall arrive. The production, the songcraft and the obvious attention paid to the vocals and arrangement stand out in 2009. With Lost in the Feeling, Conway Twitty may have been trying to find the Top 40 in country, and by his extension into another genre, he shows country doesn’t have to be one thing. Like everything else, it’s a state of mind.