Perhaps the most telling thing about the new Conway Twitty and Mickey Gilley albums is their inner sleeves. Twitty's sleeve, proudly proclaiming "Come see it, you built it," is an invitation to visit Twitty's City, a nine-acre tourist complex outside of Nashville. Gilley's sleeve is a mail-order catalogue for items from his famous honky-tonk, including Gilley's beer can radios, coffee mugs, suspenders and even the famous mechanical bull (only $7,495, postage not included).
Anyone who has been to Nashville knows that this kind of shameless hucksterism is part of country music. But pompadours, cowboy boots and hats aside, Twitty and Gilley seem to be proud to announce they are businessmen first and country singers second. If nothing else, that reveals the growing chasm between the spiritual core of the music and the stars who make the music just one part of a multi-faceted marketing strategy.
Twitty's latest album, "Conway's No. 1 Classics: Volume One" (Elektra E1-60115), is a set of re-recordings of previous hits designed to let his new label capitalize on past successes. After some years as a failed rockabilly and melodramatic pop crooner, Twitty's sizable vocal and songwriting talents found a home during the '70s working with the honky-tonk nexus of marriage, infidelity and guilt. Although some of those tear-jerking classics are here--including "Hello Darlin'," "After All the Good is Gone," and "This Time I've Hurt Her More"--Twitty's vocals in the musical arrangements never transcend carefully restrained versions of the originals. As such, this project reflects nothing more substantial than good business sense.
The best example of this emotional conservatism is found in Twitty's new rendition of "You've Never Been This Far Before," a 1973 hit that caused a sensation at the time because of its suggestive eroticism. In the original, Twitty's deep rumbling voice and emotionally tense delivery brought a trembling sense of drama to the physical encounter described in the song. Here, as in all these new versions, Twitty seems content to work with the comfortable middle range of his voice, as if to strain for the highs and drop to those sexy growls would be just too painful or discomforting for the modern country audience.
Mickey Gilley's new album, "Put Your Dreams Away" (Epic FE38082), features more of the soft crooning ballad style that Gilley has parlayed into a string of huge country hits. It's somewhat ironic that Gilley's run-of-the-mill talents and well-adjusted musical persona have added up to the kind of massive financial rewards that have eluded his awesomely talented but reckless cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. Gilley has learned to stay away from the boogie-woogie rock 'n' roll that, in the past, rendered him nothing but a second-rate Lewis imitator. Now he has perfected a kind of country cocktail music, gently rolling, soothed by his smooth drawl and embellished with a tinkling piano, that appeals to the soft pop center of the country market, while retaining a veneer of Texas cowboy chic.
Gilley follows up his past success with old rock ballads here with a typically easygoing and pleasant version of Little Willie John's originally painful classic, "Talk to Me." When Gilley tries to get a little crazy on Delbert McClinton's "Honky Tonkin' (I Guess I Done Me Some)," he sounds unwilling to get the grin out of his voice and polish off his piano long enough to reveal the hard-won musical scars that a road song like this demands. Maybe it's just tough to stop smiling when you're selling so many T-shirts and belt buckles.
Unlike Twitty and Gilley, Billy Joe Shaver just sells songs. Recognized as the outlaw's outlaw, Shaver's brilliant songwriting for Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and others was a key part of the progressive country revolution a decade ago. As a solo artist, dependent on a voice as rugged and grainy as a pair of worn boots, Shaver has been something of a diamond in the rough. His new release, "Billy Joe Shaver" (Columbia SC37959), features 10 Shaver compositions that balance his occasionally indulgent brand of cowboy mystic romanticism with his more trustworthy sense of hard-nosed realism.
One of the joys of the album is that Shaver's songs, in the best Texas tradition, feature plenty of hot instrumental interchanges among a group of sterling players, including Randy Scruggs, Mickey Raphael and Ricky Skaggs. Shaver has also included two of his early classics, "Old Five and Dimers Like Me" and "I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train," both humorously philosophical and satiric portraits of Shaver's down-but-never-out cowboy persona. Even though Shaver's voice carries little of the expressive nuance of a great country singer and his writing occasionally stumbles on a cliche', the experience-weary integrity of his music and its outsider's stance renders him one of the most satisfying and classically Southern singer-songwriters around.