My longtime paisan Jeff Lane broke the news to me on Facebook yesterday that country singer-songwriter Earl Thomas Conley left this world for a better one yesterday at the age of 77. Blake Shelton, who scored one of his early chart hits (#18 in 2002) with the Conley-penned All Over Me, remarked on Twitter that ETC “was my all time favorite singer, hero and my friend.” “My heart is absolutely destroyed today,” Shelton prefaced his tweet and I know exactly how he feels.
I got out of the habit of doing obituaries on the blog (because I always seemed so swamped by them) but I felt I should make an exception for Earl. It was through an ETC single (or more accurately, The ETC Band) that I was introduced to the man who would become my favorite country music singer, when I played Stranded on a Dead End Street many, many times during my country DJ days over WMOV in Ravenswood, WV. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was no stranger to Conley’s music: he wrote This Time I Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me for Conway Twitty, who took that tune to the top spot in 1975. Earl was also responsible for one of my very favorite country songs, Smokey Mountain Memories, which was a Top 15 charter for Mel Street that same year.
A native son of Portsmouth, Ohio, Earl Thomas Conley had ambitions of becoming a painter but the music that had been part of his working-class family life began to be a bigger influence, along with heroes like Merle Haggard and George Jones. Conley would taste success as a songwriter once he was discharged from the Army and made Nashville his permanent home; Earl was hired by record producer Nelson Larkin for both his publishing house and his independent record label GRT in 1974, and not long after that Nelson’s brother Billy would have a Top 40 country hit with the Conley-penned Leave it Up to Me.
Earl Thomas Conley didn’t have much success on the vocalist side of the coin (his GRT chart singles, as Earl Conley, included High and Wild and Queen of New Orleans) but his songwriting prowess got him a recording contract at Warner Brothers in 1977, where Stranded and Dreamin’s All I Do cracked the Top 40 in 1979. ETC didn’t stay long at Warners, and it would be his signing with an independent label, Sunbird, that would bring him his true singing success. An album produced by Nelson Larkin, Blue Pearl, would see a single entitled Silent Treatment hit #7 in 1980 (I remember cheering this tune on every week, hoping it would eventually crack the Top 10), followed by Fire and Smoke, which went all the way to Number One in 1981. Earl Thomas Conley had scored a #1 hit…at the age of 40. Smoke would be acknowledged as Billboard’s Country Song of the Year in 1981 (it took a long while for it to get to the number one spot, which meant it racked up a lot of points in the system the magazine used) but when American Country Countdown did its year-end wrap-up it chose T.G. Sheppard’s better-known Party Time. (I was really pissed about that.)
Conley’s Sunbird contract was bought out by RCA as a result of Fire and Smoke’s success (the song became the title of his first album for the label, which featured other tunes from Blue Pearl) and he scored another Top 10 hit, Tell Me Why, and a song that cracked the Top Twenty, After the Love Slips Away (the flip-side of this single was Earl’s cover of Smokey Mountain Memories). Up until this point in his music career Earl had mostly recorded his own songs (I’m always reminded of that Larry Gatlin quote: “I’d rather take my daughter to the zoo than yours”) but he agreed to tackle a non-Conley song, Heavenly Bodies, as his next single in 1982. Although Bodies only went to #8 on the charts, its “commercial” appeal opened up the floodgates for a string of solo singles that—with one exception, I Have Loved You Girl (But Not Like This Before) (a re-recording of his first single for GRT)—all nestled in at the Number One position on the Hot Country Singles chart. His 1983 album, Don’t Make It Easy for Me, was responsible for four of them (becoming the first artist of any musical genre to do this): the title song, Your Love’s on the Line, Holding Her and Loving You (a multiple Grammy Award nominee), and Angel in Disguise.
The downside to Earl Thomas Conley’s fame is that many of his hit singles started to be written by other songwriters…and while I certainly didn’t begrudge giving a struggling 16th Avenue scribe his or her big break, I liked more of the early tunes in ETC’s catalog than the later ones (I often have trouble telling songs like That Was a Close One and Right from the Heart apart)—though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get any pleasure from later ETC hits like What I’d Say and Love Out Loud. Conley’s final solo hit to crack the Top 10 was a favorite of mine, Shadow of a Doubt (Dukes of Hazzard star Tom Wopat co-wrote this), and his final overall appearance in the Top Ten was a duet he did with the late Keith Whitley, Brotherly Love (which peaked at #2). During my halcyon days at Marshall University, Jeff Lane and I used to hang out at a place called Davidson’s Record Shop and the counter clerk swore to both us that Whitley was on the cusp of becoming a big country music star (this would have been in 1983). He certainly wasn’t wrong on that score.
After the release of the album Yours Truly in 1991, Earl Thomas Conley took a six-year hiatus from country music. He was sidelined by a number of problems (I read one source that reported he had nodes on his vocal cords) including road fatigue and a dissatisfaction with record company politics. ETC’s 1998 album for Intersound, Perpetual Emotion, didn’t really do much to jump-start his career (I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it) and his public appearances were few after that. In 2013, Earl gave a phone interview to Pods o’ Pop and remarked that due to the success of his hit duet with Anita Pointer, Too Many Times (#2 in 1986), he may have been the only country artist to appear on Soul Train.
One of the biggest thrills in my (un)storied career was receiving the opportunity to meet the man whose music I dearly loved; Earl was the opening act for George Jones when the Possum did a concert (he showed up, too!) in Huntington during my years at Marshall. I approached him and shook his hand as he headed toward the tour bus, asking if I could get an autograph on the back of a card I had in my wallet. (He signed it “Best to ya!”, something that I continue to use in e-mails today. Sadly, I lost this autograph many years ago.) I don’t have the exact quote on me so I apologize in advance if I screw this up…but I believe it was country music historian Robert K. Oermann who observed that Earl Thomas Conley’s music sounded every bit as good in a Rolls Royce as it did in a pickup truck.
I did locate another quote from writer Tom Roland, however, that explains why I was such a fan: “Early in his career, Earl Thomas Conley’s music picked up the label ‘thinking man’s country.’ An accurate description—Conley looks into the heart and soul of his characters, finding the motivations for their actions and beliefs. In the process, the astute listener can find fragments of himself/herself in nearly any Conley creation.”
Well said, Tom. RIP, Earl Thomas Conley.