by Casey N. Cep
On February 4th, 1990, the sound system of the Second United Church of Christ in Lexington, North Carolina malfunctioned. Those gathered for worship at 11 o’clock that Sunday heard an unexpected voice over the microphone. According to The Dispatch, the newspaper for Davidson County, Donese Scott, who lived across the street from the church, was talking to her friend Revoda Jeffries on a cordless phone, which was picked up by church’s sound system. The two women chatted as Ms. Scott prepared a bath and climbed into the tub.
“God Almighty,” Ms. Jeffries said to Ms. Scott, “I can’t believe my husband stood in line hours to get the seats, and you got those seats Thursday.” They had run into each other the night before at a concert, and even though Ms. Jeffries’s husband had queued up weeks before to get tickets, Ms. Scott’s husband had managed to purchase seats very near the stage only a few days before the show.
The inequality of concert seating addressed, the two friends talked next of the opening act by George Jones. A woman near one of them had been so taken by The Possum that she was asked how she would respond to the main act, Conway Twitty. What the woman said, what the two friends repeated, and what the congregation heard that Sunday morning was: “I might just take my panties off.”
She wasn’t the only one. Women around the country shed their knickers for Conway Twitty. It happened whenever he performed. To understand why, you need only listen to one song, the song that opened almost every concert he gave after 1970. It begins with Twitty softly whispering some pretty love words into the ears of every woman listening:
“Hello Darlin’,” he says, “Nice to see you.”
Women swooned. Pull back the curtain, turn down the lights, crank up the volume; whatever else had to happen, Twitty uttering those six words meant the show had begun.
“Hello Darlin’” wasn’t just a show opener, it was Twitty’s fifth chart topper. He recorded the song in November of 1969, and released it in March of 1970. It rose to number one the first week of June, and spent four weeks there. Five years later, as if to demonstrate the universality of Twitty’s charm, the song was broadcast from space.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project proved that spacecraft could dock while in orbit when the American Apollo Command and Service Module connected with the Russian Soyuz capsule, but it also linked the two countries in a cultural exchange that culminated in the broadcast of Twitty’s song. On July 17, 1975, after the crew members shook hands and exchanged gifts, Apollo Commander Tom Stafford played the version of “Hello Darlin’” he had convinced the country singer to record in Russian: “Privet Radost.”
Goodness knows why Commander Stafford chose Twitty’s ballad for the honor. It’s a beautiful song, but not exactly the stuff of global harmony or intergalactic peace. It is the tender admission that an old flame still burns — the quiet apology of a man who regrets losing love.
The song is the kind of one-sided conversation that country musicians do so well. After exchanging pleasantries (“nice to see you,” “it’s been a long time,” “you’re just as lovely as you used to be”) and then asking a few questions (“how’s your new love” and “are you happy”), the man’s darling returns the favor. She asks how he’s doing, only to hear, “Guess I’m doin’ alright,” and then, “except I can’t sleep and I cry all night ’til dawn.”
There is all that love can do when it’s doing you wrong — endless tears and no sleep. But then Twitty sings what almost everyone longs to hear from almost every ex they’ve ever had: “I love you and I miss you and I’m so sorry that I did you wrong.” The song works because the sweet nothings never cease; there’s no argument, no defensiveness, just unadulterated apology and regret.
“Let me kiss you, just for old time’s sake,” he asks, “Let me hold you in my arms one more time.” And so they do, followed by the mid-point of the song’s chiasmus: “Goodbye, Darlin’, gotta go now, gotta try to find a way to lose these memories of a love so warm and true.” The final plea, that last, plaintive turn, comes when Conway Twitty says, “And if you should ever find it in your heart to forgive me, Come back Darlin’, I’ll be waitin’ for you.”
Hello, goodbye, come back; the song is every relationship that’s ever failed. And just like Twitty’s fifty-four other number-one hits, “Hello Darlin’” charmed not only because of its lyrics, but how he delivered them. Like a cowboy wearing bunny slippers, it was his sensitive masculinity that brought women to tears. Twitty paved the way for male vocalists like George Strait and Vince Gill, more likely to be lusted after as husbands than lovers.
That’s part of why “Hello Darlin’” charmed the panties off so many women. You could be his darling whether you were single or married, a divorcee or a spinster, even if you weren’t a woman. After Twitty died in 1993, his wife said, “He’d always pick a song that women would hear and love. Right up to the last album project we finished, that was still the important thing.”
Twitty always claimed he wrote “Hello Darlin’” for Loretta Lynn, who was his singing partner for 18 years, but he and Lynn were both married to others, and they never had an affair. “I love you,” then, means more than what it seems: the relationship that says hello, goodbye, and comeback isn’t necessarily romantic; the “love so warm and true” isn’t only erotic.
There are so many kinds of darlings, which is why I find Blake Shelton’s recent song “Honey Bee” so confusing. From the get go, the sobriquet gets changed from “Darlin’” to “Girl,” and then a series of pairings tries tactlessly to convey romance: “You’ll be my soft and sweet, I’ll be your strong and steady”; “You’ll be my glass of wine, I’ll be your shot of whiskey”; “You’ll be my honeysuckle, I’ll be your honey bee.” And then, finally, just before the sugar and the sweet iced tea: “You’ll be my Little Loretta, I’ll be your Conway Twitty.”
Lynn was perhaps the only woman who didn’t throw her panties at the man, but even, or perhaps especially, country music misunderstands its own history. The best misunderstanding, though, in the history of the song came years before. It was a joke that Minnie Pearl, of Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw fame, used to tell about a new preacher in town who looked like Conway Twitty.
The preacher went ringing on doorbells trying to recruit congregants, and when the first woman answered the door, she shouted, “Conway Twitty!” He said no, that she was mistaken, and he was only the new preacher. He went to a second house and the same thing happened. He went to a third house and, when he rang the doorbell, a beautiful young woman answered wearing only a towel. She threw out her arms and the towel fell as she shouted, “Conway Twitty!”
The preacher said what every woman wants to hear, “Hello, Darlin’.”
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Photo by Thomas Hawk