My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Earl Thomas Conley — ‘Fire and Smoke’

Earl Thomas Conley made his debut on RCA Records, the label where he would reside for the bulk of his career and enjoy his greatest success, in the fall of 1981. That label debut, Fire and Smoke, was a success out of the gate.

The album was produced by Conley and his collaborator Nelson Larkin. RCA sent it’s first single to radio just over a year before the album hit store shelves. “Silent Treatment,” which Conley wrote solo, is a mid-tempo ballad about a woman giving her guy the cold shoulder, a tactic he says is “working on me.” It peaked at #7, giving Conley his first top ten hit.

The title track became Conley’s first of eighteen number one hits upon release in April 1981. Also solely written by the singer, it features a nice groove and tells the story of a love that was all “fire and smoke” when it was hot, and ash when the fire burned out.

The album’s third single, “Tell Me Why,” was written by John Booth Aclin. It features a muscular production consisting of forceful guitars mixed with steel. Although the lyric is unremarkable, the song peaked at #10.

RCA managed to squeeze one final single from the album, the excellent string-laced ballad “After The Love Slips Away.” It does sort of drone on without a chorus and is a bit slower than the radio offerings preceding it, two factors that may help explain why it stalled at #16. Wikipedia lists the song as “After The Love Slips Away / Smokey Mountain Memories,” the latter being an excellent banjo, fiddle and steel drenched down-home tribute to life amongst the titular mountain range in Tennessee.

“Too Much Noise (Trucker’s Waltz)” finds Conley straining to overcompensate with twang, in order to up the country credibility of the song. “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More (Than She Loves Me)” is a brilliant slice of classic country and one of the strongest cuts on the album.

“Your Love Is Just For Strangers (I Suppose)” is a smoothed over string-heavy unremarkable ballad. “Like Cinderella,” with its sinister vibe, is one of the album’s weaker offerings and one of my least favorite. “As Low As You Can Go,” with it’s spoken intro, is really just more of the same and another not to my taste.

Fire and Smoke is an album trying to be a little bit to everyone, and for the most part, it succeeds. I was pleasantly surprised to find a few instances of actual country music among the ten tracks, moments like “Smokey Mountain Memories” and “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More (Than She Loves Me)” that Conley executes with ease. It’s clear he was just getting started and finding his way.

Grade: B

2 responses to “Album Review: Earl Thomas Conley — ‘Fire and Smoke’

  1. Ken August 8, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    Earl Thomas Conley’s recording career began a decade before he was signed to RCA. His first single was issued on the tiny Prize label in 1971. In the mid-seventies he released five singles for GRT Records, then three for Warner Brothers before scoring his first big hits for the independent Sunbird label in early 1981

    The Fire And Smoke album was RCA’s effort to immediately monetize their investment for newly signed artist ETC. His recent Sunbird single hits were previously issued on his “Blue Pearl” Sunbird LP. By the time RCA released this album in mid-October 1981 both Sunbird singles were long off the chart. RCA saw the value of titling this LP with Earl’s recent #1 hit and also including Silent Treatment to pick up sales in areas where the independent Sunbird label may have been hard-to-find for consumers. The release of this album coincided with Earl’s first RCA single “Tell Me Why.”

    Four of the five tracks on Side A of this album were previously issued for Sunbird – Fire and Smoke, Silent Treatment, Too Much Noise (Trucker’s Waltz) and This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me. The last track was a 1976 number one hit for Conway Twitty but may have been recorded in the mid-70’s as Nelson Larkin & Dick Heard co-produced that track. That duo co-produced all of ETC’s mid-70’s GRT singles.

    The other six songs were new recordings created for this LP. Smoky Mountain Memories was co-written by Earl and was a #13 single hit for his GRT Records labelmate Mel Street in 1975. Earl’s arrangement mirrored Mel’s version. Earl’s rendition became a tag-a-long B side to the “After The Love Slips Away” single so the split airplay may have worked to limit the record’s chart potential despite RCA’s best promotional efforts. That said “After The Love Slips Away” was not very compelling which I believe is the main reason why it did not make the top ten.

    Because the album was comprised of different sessions recorded over several years it’s not very cohesive. It’s more of a collection of songs that a complete album. The best songs are Fire & Smoke and Silent Treatment. “Tell Me Why” and the two “cover” songs are also well done but most of the other tracks are average at best and some are a bit over-produced in my estimation. But that’s where the sound of country music was headed in 1981.

    All of the tracks are available on YouTube so you can sample them for yourself.

    I agree with Jonathan – B rating. Not Earl’s best work.

    • Ken August 15, 2018 at 2:20 pm

      To clarify and correct my earlier post, “Tell Me Why” was not Earl’s FIRST RCA single. “You Don’t Have To Go Too Far” a track from Earl’s “Blue Pearl” Sunbird album was issued as Earl’s first RCA single in August 1981. The B side was “Too Much Noise (Trucker’s Waltz).” However within a few weeks RCA issued a new single “Tell Me Why” with “Too Much Noise (Trucker’s Waltz)” on the B side.

      Not sure of the reason for the change but it may have been because “You Have Have To Go Too Far” was actually an unreleased track from Earl’s stint with Warner Brothers. There may have been legal issues. Or perhaps the early reaction at radio was not what they had hoped for as the track failed to chart. Despite being issued as an RCA single the song was not included on the “Fire And Smoke” album. The release of that LP coincided with the release of Earl’s SECOND RCA single “Tell Me Why.”

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