Jeff Bates' sophomore album, Leave the Light On, is really about: not hiding. Bates' sensuously seductive, passionately romantic (and, lest we forget, charmingly witty) second album is a suite of songs about the good things that happen when human beings open up to each other, and see one another for who they truly are. It's about keeping no secrets and telling no lies, especially when it comes to love. It's about keeping the emotional lights on, so we can see one another's hearts.
"The sexiest thing a man or a woman can do is be vulnerable," Bates advises. "Just let go. Stop all the pretending. You can't maintain a façade. If you love somebody, love them. Tell them you love them, show them you love them."
Bates can speak with some authority on the subject of what drives the opposite sex wild. Although he chuckles at the thought of himself as a sex symbol, that's exactly what he's become to a legion of entranced female fans who practically faint at the sound of his deep, rich, bedroom voice. But don't go thinking that it's only women who latched on to Bates through his 2003 debut album, Rainbow Man, or his spellbinding live performances. More than one man has approached the star to thank him for helping fellas learn to say the things women want to hear.
"I've had guys come up to me and say, 'You know, your song helped save my marriage, because I was listening to it and I realized I hadn't been showing my partner all the attention that she deserved,'" confides Bates. "Women sometimes say the same thing. I get that kind of feedback from my audience."
He has taken all the vital, sometimes overwhelming give-and-take he's enjoyed with that loyal audience over the past several years and poured it into Leave the Light On. For his new album, Bates wrote and discovered songs that bypass all artifice and head straight for the emotional core. "I think a great song should hit you emotionally first, and then make you think," he says. "Every singer that I've respected and admired hit me from the emotional side, and made me feel something."
Those singers include legends like Conway Twitty, Elvis Presley, Barry White and Johnny Cash—all deep-voiced icons who Bates first heard while growing up in tiny rural Bunker Hill, Mississippi, where he was raised by loving adoptive parents. "Hell, we didn't have much, and didn't know there was much to have," he recalls with a smile. "We were poor. But I had a great mama and daddy, and lots of love—and I think that right there can set you up for just about anything."
Bates developed his distinctive vocal tones by singing in church and at school talent shows (its timbre was additionally shaped later by, he admits, "too many cigarettes and too much whiskey"). By 17, he was singing in local honky-tonks, where his astonishing voice and dogged work ethic helped him work his way up through the local circuit and finally to Nashville.
But even as his star was rising, Bates was developing a crippling methamphetamine addiction that sapped his spirit, alienated him from those he loved and finally landed him, briefly, in jail. "I don't want to see anyone get tangled up with meth," he says. "And if they do, I want them to know there's hope. I know, because I've been there."
For Bates, jail was the low point—and the turning point. About a week into his three-month stint in lockup, with the poison finally out of his system, he came to a life-altering understanding. "All of a sudden, I'm thinking clear enough to realize that I've hurt everybody I love," he says. "I got on the phone and started calling people that I'd taken things from, that I'd hurt, that I'd lied to and cheated. I confessed, and they forgave me."
Just as importantly, he forgave himself. "I stopped dead in my tracks," says Bates. "I realized that I don't have the right to judge another living human being—and if that's true, and we're equal, then I don't have the right to judge me, either. And hey, God isn't going to judge me until I die. That kind of realization opens a lot of doors, and it opens your heart."
Doors indeed started opening for the now clean-and-sober Bates. He scored an audition with RCA Records in 2002—and just as it had since he was 17, his sheer vocal power and skill made a deep impression on those listening. "That's how my mama taught me to sing," he says. "We'd sit on the porch late at night singing old gospel songs and wait for Daddy to come home. If I didn't sing loud and proud and live it while I sung it, she'd reach back and pop me behind the head. 'Open your mouth, boy!'"
It was a lesson that served him well. On Rainbow Man, Jeff opened his mouth and let the gospel truth of his life pour out, from his deep-South upbringing and relocation to Music City ("My Mississippi") to his mixed racial heritage ("Rainbow Man") and the devastation wrought by his addiction ("The Wings of Mama's Prayers").
The public responded mightily, in some ways more zealously than anyone could have anticipated. The album was a Top 20 hit, producing the hit singles "The Love Song," "Long, Slow Kisses" and "I Wanna Make You Cry." But thanks to his rough-and-tumble background, Bates kept his head screwed on straight throughout the experience.
"Here's how I keep my ego in check," he says. "Five years ago, I was in jail. I was lost and had lost everything, was the loneliest I'd ever been and just wishing I could get my feet in the grass again. You go from that to this ... I can't ever forget that. I remember it every day. And that alone is very humbling."
That humility was one reason Bates was hesitant to sanction a fan club. "If you work your ass off all week and you go buy the CD or buy a ticket to see a Jeff Bates concert, you're in the fan club," he asserts. But then a fan club formed itself—a group of Bates' most fervent female followers dubbed themselves "Women on a Mission," after a line in the Rainbow Man track "Lovin' Like That." (Their website is www.jeffbatesfans.com.)
"They did it all themselves, it's not something I enticed them into doing," says Bates. "They're active and educated in what we're doing here. I love 'em." The Women on a Mission have even started a program to send care packages to soldiers in Iraq, Operation Circle of Love (after another Rainbow Man lyric, this time from the Top 10 "The Love Song").
With such a level of devotion among his fans, Bates knew expectations would be high for his second album. "We wanted to make a record, first of all, that was better than the first one," he says.
Leave the Light On continues the autobiographical, unafraid honesty of Rainbow Man in affecting, direct numbers like the sympathetic "The Woman He Walked On," the emotional "No Shame"—and especially "One Second Chance," an ex-con's plea for forgiveness that Bates obviously holds close to his heart. It also features a heaping helping of Jeff's trademark wry wit on tunes like "Good People," "That'll Get You Ten," "Hands On Man" and a lusty romp through the Billy "Crash" Craddock classic "Rub It In." "You can't take yourself too serious," says Bates. "I think a sense of humor is very important—and it's sexy. Being able to relieve stress that way is important in a relationship."
Relationships are always Topic A at a Jeff Bates show (especially the one between Bates and his fans), and on Leave the Light On, he looks at them from all angles—the highs, the lows, and everything in between. "This is real life, this is what we do, this is how we live," he says. "Good, bad or indifferent, in love, in pain, loss, gain. It's all right here in this record. It's all about relationships, and how you look at yourself and how you look at others."
The essential message, he says, is simple. "Love each other," he urges. "Be yourself, no matter what anybody thinks. Don't try to be what you think somebody wants you to be." In other words, leave the light on. It's an idea that resonates on a deeply intimate level, which is precisely the level where Jeff Bates likes to live, work and sing.
"My goal is to make music that matters on a personal level to people," he says. "Connect with 'em, touch 'em, make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em feel—and to be here for a long time."
Which brings us to the third and final meaning of that album title, "I'm not going anywhere," declares Bates. "There's more to come. Leave the light on for me, because I'll be back."