My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Spotlight Artist: Earl Thomas Conley

Born in October 1941, Earl Thomas Conley is the quintessence of the term “late bloomer” as far as becoming a country music star. Although he had some very modest chart success starting in 1975 with GRT Records and again with Warner Brothers in 1979, it wasn’t until Conley reached independent label Sunbird in late 1980, that Earl (or ETC as he was often called) began to achieve real success as a recording artist. By then, he was thirty-nine years old.

Earl Thomas Conley was the oldest and most successful of the triumvirate of somewhat similarly named country artist of the 1980s (the others were Con Hunley and John Conlee), each of whom had very distinctive voices. Earl had an extended run of success, both as a recording artist and as a songwriter. Between 1980 and 2003, he recorded ten studio albums, including seven for RCA. During this same period he charted more than 30 singles on the Billboard country charts, with 18 reaching #1.

Earl was raised in a working class family that had a love for music and the arts, and painting – which he started when he was 10 – was Earl’s first love. At age 14, Earl’s father lost his job with the railroad and Earl went to live with an older sister in Dayton, Ohio, where he continued to paint and develop his skills as an artist. While painting was his first love, Earl’s father had introduced him to music and Earl began to be more aware of it as an influence in his life.

After graduating high school, Earl decided against college, joining the Army instead. While in the Army, Earl became a member a Christian-influenced trio, where his musical talent and vocal ability were first placed on public display. At some point Earl decided that performing might not be a bad way to make a living. Accordingly, he delved more deeply into the classic country sounds of artists such as Merle Haggard and George Jones. During this period Earl first tried his hand at songwriting. In 1968, after his discharge from the Army, Earl began commuting from Dayton to Nashville.

With nothing happening for him in Nashville (and tired of back and forth commuting), Earl moved to Huntsville, Alabama, to be 150 miles closer to the recording industry. While in Nashville on a song-plugging visit in 1973, Earl met Dick Herd, who produced the great Mel Street. This meeting eventually led to the Conley-Herd collaboration on the song “Smokey Mountain Memories”, which Street took into the top 10 in early 1975.

Prior to Street’s recording Earl had moved to Nashville, where he met record producer Nelson Larkin, who signed Earl to his publishing house and helped sign him with independent label GRT in 1974. Larkin placed one of Earl’s songs with his brother Billy Larkin, “Leave It Up to Me”, which Larkin took to #22 in late 1975. Nelson Larkin would produce Earl’s sessions through the end of the 1980s.

GRT released four of Earl’s singles without much success. Meanwhile, Earl placed “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me,” with Conway Twitty, who took it all the way to the top in 1975, giving Earl his first #1 record as a songwriter.

On the strength of his successful songwriting, Warner Brothers signed Earl to a recording contract. Unfortunately, the three singles Warner Brothers issued in 1979 on ‘Earl Conley’ failed to achieve much traction.

After his stint at Warner Brothers was over, Earl Thomas Conley (as he was now billed) signed with the independent label Sunbird Records, where he recorded the album Blue Pearl, reuniting with producer Nelson Larkin. “Fire & Smoke,” released as a single and given a decent promotional push to radio, emerged as Earl’s first major hit, eventually reaching the top of Billboard’s county chart, thus giving Earl his first #1 record as a performer at the relatively old age of 40.

The success of “Fire and Smoke” caused RCA to pick up Earl’s contract and purchase the rights to Earl’s Sunbird recordings for release on RCA. Ultimately RCA became his home for the next decade during which time the following songs reached #1:

•“Somewhere Between Right and Wrong”
•“Your Love’s On The Line”
•“Holding Her and Loving You”
•“Don’t Make It Easy For Me”
•“Angel In Disguise”
•“Chance of Loving You”
•“Love Don’t Care (Whose Heart it Breaks)”
•“Nobody Fall s Like A Fool”
•“Once In A Blue Moon”
•“I Have Loved You Girl”
•“I Can’t Win For Losing You”
•“That Was A Close One”
•“Right From The Start”
•“What She Is (Is A Woman In Love)”
•“We Believe In Happy Endings” (w/Emmylou Harris)
•“What I’d Say”
•“Love Out Loud”

While Earl Thomas Conley tended to regard himself as a straight country artist, his rather smoky voice helped gain him acceptance across the board. Earl appeared on the television show Soul Train in 1986, and to the best of my knowledge he is the only country artist to be so featured.

Chart success basically ran out for Earl at the end of the 1980s although there were some decent chart hits through 1992, including the 1991 recording of “Brotherly Love” a duet with Keith Whitley released after Keith’s death.

Since then, Earl has continued to tour occasionally and write songs but has done relatively little recording, with a seven year recording hiatus 1991-1997. This hiatus was due to a number of factors, including vocal problems, disenchantment with record label politics, road fatigue and mental burnout. Earl finally emerged with another album in 1998, Perpetual Emotion, aided and abetted by long-time friends Randy Scruggs and Curly Corwin. His last albums were Should Have Been Over By Now, released in 2003, and Live at Billy Bob’s, released in 2005.

Earl is now 76 years old and no longer maintains a website, although he does maintain a Facebook page. Earl retired from performing about a year ago.

Various artists continue to record his songs, and Blake Shelton released Earl’s “All Over Me” as a single in 2002. Earl has always eschewed fads, not becoming a ‘hat act’ during the late 1980s and continuing to write thoughtful, non-gimmicky songs.

The digital age has seen much of Earl’s recorded legacy restored to the catalogue, so finding his songs should not be difficult. We hope you enjoy discovering (or rediscovering) the music of our very distinctive Spotlight vocalist Earl Thomas Conley.

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8 responses to “Spotlight Artist: Earl Thomas Conley

  1. Ken August 1, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    One of country music’s most expressive voices. Looking forward to revisiting his catalog this month.

    Although he scored an impressive amount of country hits during the 1980’s he was almost a forgotten act by the end of the next decade. The same qualities that made Earl Thomas Conley a great introspective songwriter worked to his detriment as an entertainer. His rather introverted personality did not allow for a very exciting stage presence. During the 1980’s as country shows became more dynamic Earl’s presentation was rather low key by comparison. Most of his hits were ballads or medium tempo songs so he did not have a lot of exciting material to work with onstage. His performances were just not very memorable.

    Although Earl earned an impressive string of #1 hits the 1980’s was an era of significant chart manipulation by record labels. Generally there was a new #1 country record every week as labels orchestrated a covert effort that allowed records to top the chart and then promptly disappear to make way for the next #1 song. Earl had some great records to be sure but it’s likely that some of his #1 hits may have been due to that process.

    Earl may hold the record for having the most variations of a country singer’s name printed on record labels. His very first release for the tiny Prize label was “Earl T. Conley.” He was “Earl Conley” for his five GRT singles. Three Warner Brothers singles that followed all had different name credits – “Earl Conley,” then “Earl Thomas Conley” and lastly “The ETC Band.” When he moved to Sunbird he reverted to “Earl Thomas Conley” and retained that name throughout the rest of his recording career.

    A couple of additions to your posted comments.

    Dick Heard (sp.) was Mel Street’s producer.

    Shortly after Earl moved to Huntsville circa 1970 he met Nelson Larkin and his partner Roger Murrah who owned Kontention Sound studio with other investors They saw promise in Earl and released a single for their Prize label in late 1971. Billed as “Earl T. Conley” and produced by Murrah the A side was his version of the Joan Baez pop hit “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The flip was an original song that Earl co-wrote with Roger Murrah – “River Of Teardrops.” Thanks to YouTube we can hear Earl at the dawn of his career.

  2. Luckyoldsun August 2, 2018 at 12:56 am

    Sometimes, it seems, record companies toy with an artist’s name to make it easier to remember or more distinctive to distinguish it from other artists. Joy White became Joy Lynn White, Ty England became Tyler England. They even once changed Janie Fricke’s name so that it was spelled like it’s pronounced, “Frickee.”
    There were at least three country singers with vaguely similar names in the late ’70s-early ’80s–John Conlee, Con Hunley, and Earl Conley–and they were probably trying to make Earl stand out a bit by using a middle initial or full middle name.
    Then there was a thing with women singers going by one name–possibly in the wake of Madonna. Wynonna Judd became just Wynonna and I recall reading that Reba McEntire was henceforth going to be called just Reba. I think MCA started writing her name as “Reba” on the front of her CD’s, but they still printed it as Reba McEntire on the spines of the edge of the insert card that showed through the spines of the CD jewel boxes.

    • Ken August 2, 2018 at 4:37 pm

      Your comment that record labels unilaterally “toy with an artist’s name” is not accurate.
      Name changes must be agreed to by the artist and their management as well as the record label. Re-branding an artist is a major decision as it means starting from square one in establishing name identity & image after substantial money and effort was expended on the former name or image. An artist may choose to re-brand themselves if they have changed musical approach, style or direction. Sometimes it also coincides with a record label change. “Toy” implies that decision is done on a whim which is never the case.

      Janie Fricke changed the spelling of her last name to “Frickie” because it was frequently mispronounced as “Frick” by many outside of the country music field. Eventually she reverted back to the original spelling anyway.

  3. Luckyoldsun August 4, 2018 at 10:46 pm

    While Conley may have been the only country artist to appear on Soul Train, his sound is fairly bland, especially hearing it now. The generation of country singers that preceded Earl actually had quite a number of singers with “soul” phrasings that I would say were more expressive and stand up better on listening to their recordings today: I’d name Razzy Bailey, Joe Stampley, Tommy Overstreet and the most successful of them all, Charlie Rich as singers who would blow Conley away when it comes to soul.
    Another great country soul singer–a successor to Conley–is T. Graham Brown, though he really started to emphasize the soul aspects of his personality and voice after his mainstream career was finished.

    • Ken August 5, 2018 at 12:39 pm

      That’s your opinion. But many would say that ETC’s voice is as good as the other artists that you mentioned. Obviously the public doesn’t share your view. Fans ultimately vote with their wallets. ETC scored 18 number one records. That’s more than any of the others that you listed. Charlie Rich may have sold more units due to crossover hits on pop radio, but ETC was a consistent country hit maker for an entire decade. He had no crossover hits.

      To be clear the ONLY reason that ETC appeared on Soul Train was to perform a duet with Anita Pointer. His invitation to be on that show wasn’t because he was perceived as a “soul” singer by R&B fans. The duo scored a #2 country hit with “Too Many Times” in 1986.

      I fail to hear the similarity that you assert between T. Graham Brown and ETC. Brown was definitely a blues stylist. ETC had a touch of blues in his style but was definitely a country singer at his core.

  4. Paul W Dennis August 7, 2018 at 12:41 am

    I like Earl Thomas Conley but, as you noted, his 18 # records occurred during the spin-o-rama era of country music charts, when there was a new #1 nearly every week. I think ETC’s number ones spent a total of 18 weeks at #1. Moreover, there were a lot of artists from ETC;s time that pulled up with 14-18 Billboard number ones including T G Shepperd, by no stretch a great artist. .

    I do think that the frequently cheesy 1980s production hid some of ETC’s attributes as a county singer I wish he had rerecorded some of his hits with fiddle & steel

    You don’t get to disparage Charlie Rich on my watch. Charlie Rich had nine #1 records that spent a total of 16 weeks at #1 and had another four records that reached #1 on Cashbox and/or Record World. He truly was a great artist, even if classifying him proved next to impossible

    I think the one thing that separates ETC from the truly great artists is the lack of a signature song or songs, Like George Strait, he ranged from good to very good.

    • Ken August 8, 2018 at 8:13 am

      Not sure how you interpreted my comment as “disparaging” Charlie Rich. I was illustrating that ETC was at least as big a star as Charlie with the country audience based on his long successful string of hits. Though some of ETC’s records may have hit #1 through chart manipulation by the record label they were definitely successful top ten hits. Charlie enjoyed the luxury of pop acceptance, popularity & sales while ETC had to remain strictly within the country lane.

  5. Luckyoldsun August 7, 2018 at 11:31 pm

    Paul,
    Agree with you. I’d Charlie Rich in the H-o-F. I think there’s a good case for ETC, as well based on all those #1’s, but I just feel like Rich is the more timeless artist, by far.

    On a side note, I wonder what happened to ETC and why he sort of disappeared. Did he have health problems? I’ve never seen him on any of those Country Reunion shows. I’m sure they’d have him on if he had any interest in appearing. I suppose age is a factor. I looked it up and was surprised that John Conlee, who’s big on the reunions and the Grand Old Opry is five years younger than Earl Conley. Earl was already 39 when he had his first hit single. (Imagine THAT happening today!)

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