Earl Thomas Conley had 22 number one singles in his career, and in the 1980’s he was the third most played artist in country radio, alongside friends Alabama and Ronnie Milsap.
Conley made music history in 1984 when he became the first artist in any music genre to have four number one singles from one album, “Don’t Make It Easy For Me.” The singles in the history-making feat were “Your Love’s On The Line,” “Angel In Disguise,” “Holding Her and Loving You” and “Don’t Make It Easy For Me.” He was also the first country artist to be invited to appear on the television music show “Soul Train” after his number one duet with Anita Pointer, “Too Many Times.”
The prolific songwriter and entertainer was honored by those artists he influenced, including Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, John Anderson, Wade Hayes, Joe Diffie, Neal McCoy, Erinn Scates and Dale Ann Bradley at a heartfelt Tribute at the CMA Theatre In the Country Music Hall Of Fame (September 10). The room was filled with family, friends and people who knew and worked with in the music industry, and the feeling of love and respect filled the room throughout the event.
Conley’s last performance was in honor of his friend, songwriter Walt Aldridge, who co-wrote “Holding Her and Loving You” with Tommy Brasfield. Conley performed that song when Aldridge was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in October 2017. Aldridge was on hand at the Tribute to perform a new song he wrote with Mike Pyle, “With You,” which he had played for Conley before he passed.
The performers talked about Conley’s distinctive voice, the depth of his songwriting and the how he was ahead of his time with his music. Most of all they talked about how nice he was to them as newcomers in the business and how that memory has always remained with them.
Aldean found himself on Conley’s bus one night after he opened for him. “My booking agent knew I was a fan so after the show he took me over to introduce me,” the singer recalled. “I probably had two songs out at the time, but Earl told me he liked what I was doing. Having that pat on the back from someone I really looked up to was cool for me – it gave me a lot of confidence. Getting to meet him also showed me how, when you do have success, you should be kind to the younger artists who are just coming up in the business. It was all very special.”
Anderson was in a different situation when he met Conley. The two of them were signed to Warner Brothers at the same time, and they often talked about their hopes and dreams in country music. “In the next few years we both got to see our dreams come true,” Anderson commented. “That was what was special about our friendship. We both started out about the same time, and we both ended up doing okay.”
Hayes remembered seeing Conley at his hometown fair in and talking himself into being a brave teenager and going up to ask for an autograph. “He is the first celebrity I ever met. He was playing the Pottawatomie County Fair in Shawnee, Oklahoma and I saw him cruising around in a golf cart – I was just a kid — and I ran up and stopped him and got his autograph. I remember he was very shy, but very nice. He was the same way when, after I was in the music business, I went up on his bus to say hello. He was still very quiet and shy.”
Diffie recalls that Conley was one of the first concerts he ever went to. “It was at the Rusty Spur in Rush Springs, Oklahoma, and it was a thrill to go watch him. As years passed, I saw him a lot at the golf course – never got to play with him. His voice had a lot of angst to it and when you heard him you believed every word he sang.”
Musician Jimmy Bowen, who was part of the band at the Tribute, recalls late night talks with Conley when he was in his band. “Earl and I were both night owls. He would talk about how his generation of artists were all working for the same goal. The important thing he stressed is the fact they all sounded different. Every artist was creative in their own way and recorded songs that fit them and their vocal style.”
Bowen went on to say, “The tribute was celebrated with such love, feeling and emotion, that I know he was smiling down from heaven, saying, ‘You boys did good,’ as he often always did after a show.”
McCoy and Conley opened for Charley Pride when McCoy was getting started. “Every night I would be standing by the stage, watching every show he did. He always stretched it, not just from an emotional standpoint but from a range standpoint. You never noticed that until you try to sing one of his songs.”
Bradley never had the opportunity to meet Conley, but the bluegrass stylist assured the audience that Conley was well loved in bluegrass, just as he loved bluegrass because he grew up listening to it with his dad back in Portsmouth, Ohio. She said she loved his music from the first time she heard him. “His approach to singing, writing and picking was exactly like a bluegrass picker and singer. It’s all about the truth. The lyrics are deep and expressive of all the emotions you feel in life. You could feel the hurt and happiness in his music. That what bluegrass does too. He was the real deal.”
His daughter, Erinn, opened the show with the Earl Thomas Conley Band. When asked what advice he gave her, she said, “He said just don’t sing.” Of course she didn’t listen to that advice, and remembered another instance when she should have listened to him. The two were supposed to do a song together on one of his shows, and after they walked onstage, Conley walked off and left her standing at the mic. “Naturally I had to improvise,” Scates remembered. “When he finally came back on the bus after I did the song, he just stared at me and nodded. I was thinking I better get an apology, and he said, ‘Boy I’ve been there.’ I realized later he meant well.”
Another piece of advice Conley gave his daughter was, “Do the best you can. When it doesn’t work out, so be it. You’re going to have to get over it.” She used that advice that night he left her on stage, because she did the best she could, and she eventually got over having to do a solo performance when she thought it would be her and her dad!
Bryan never met Conley but he was brought up in the Earl Thomas Conley school of music by his father. “My dad had Earl’s tape in his pickup truck, and if you were riding with him, you were listening to that tape. I don’t know if he ever listened to the radio, but I can tell you for at least five years that tape was always playing. Once I started performing, if you were playing honky tonks and you didn’t do an Earl Thomas Conley slow song, you were a fool. He was one of the best vocalists and stylists that ever lived.”
Sheldon was only in Nashville a couple years before he met the man he calls his hero. “I loved his music, and Mike Pyle, who was in his band said he would introduce me to Earl. We became friends and I will always treasure that. I cried when I heard he passed away, and I think it was because I am afraid nobody’s going to remember Earl. That’s why I’m here today, as part of this tribute. I wanted to do something to make sure that doesn’t happen.
While the audience enjoyed the music out front, the artists were visiting and catching up backstage. One minute Bryan was in Sheldon’s dressing room, the next he was standing with his arm around Anderson, talking about music.
Bradley was thrilled to meet Anderson, whose music she also loves. When she started to introduce herself to him, he just looked at her and smiled and said, “Oh, I know who you are.”
Hayes and McCoy were hanging out in the dressing room, exchanging stories and catching up with each other. Diffie was right there with them, laughing with them as they recalled concerts they had done together as they all traveled up and down the highway.
All of the artists were quick to talk with Scates and tell her a few stories about her dad. And like her father, they were encouraging to a young artist who is just getting started with her career in music.
Artists who could not be in town but contributed videos were Brad Paisley, Steve Wariner, Toby Keith, Trace Adkins Marty Rabon, Little Big Town, Jason Owen and the Oak Ridge Boys. The video of Conley and Pointer singing “Too Many Times” was also played during the Tribute.”
As the audience came into the room, they watched videos of Conley from throughout his career. There was also a life-size cutout of Conley, as well as his blue pearl guitar spotlighted from the balcony. As they left, they were treated to a new song that Conley recorded, “Love’s The Only Voice.” It is available only on digital on “The Essential Earl Thomas Conley” released by Sony Legacy. You can find the album here https://www.amazon.com/Essential-Earl-Thomas-Conley/dp/B07C89VRM5) or other online stores where music is sold.
Conley was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, and always remained true to his hometown. A park in West Portsmouth is named after him, and he set up several charities, including the Earl Thomas Conley Golf Outing, which gave scholarships to local students.
The singer had his own style which influenced numerous up-and-coming singers and songwriters. While he wrote many of his own songs, he had a knack for picking songs written by others and giving them his own special style. Conley was dubbed “The Thinking Man’s Country Singer” because of the themes of his songs and the honesty and integrity with which he performed them.
Conley died on April 10, 2019 from a form of dementia. He was 77.
Here are the songs and the artists who performed them during the Tribute:
Earl Thomas Conley Band
“Somewhere Between Right and Wrong”
“Too Far From the Heart of It All”
“Smokey Mountain Memories”
Wade Hayes & Joe Diffie
“Nobody Falls Like a Fool”
“Holding Her and Loving You”
Walt Aldridge & Michael Pyle
Dale Ann Bradley
“We Believe in Happy Endings”
“Once in a Blue Moon
“What I’d Say”
Earl Thomas Conley Band & Wade Hayes
“Fire and Smoke”
Artists and Earl Thomas Conley Band
“Don’t Make It Easy For Me”
(To see interviews with these artists by Shannon McCombs, go to YouTube and search for the artists’ name paired with Earl — Blake Shelton Earl Thomas Conley, Dale Ann Bradley Earl Thomas Conley, Neal McCoy Earl Thomas Conley)