My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Fellow Travelers/Country Heart’

John Conlee’s career was one of the casualties of the wave of young stars emerging in the late 80s swept away the old guard. Columbia having dispensed with his services, he signed a deal with prominent independent label Sixteenth Avenue, which had also recently picked up superstar Charley Pride.

He decided to ‘Hit The Ground Runnin’’, a nice upbeat tune about moving on with some cheerful accordion. Next up was the reflective ‘River Of Time’, written by Larry Cordle and Jim Rushing (although iTunes miscredits it having confused it with the Judds’ song of the same name). This song looks at the changes in attitude brought as one grows up and older:

I was 16 and strong as a horse
I didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’
But I knew everything of course
I turned 21 totin’ a gun
And losing some good friends of mine
I was crossing my first dreams of sorrow
On the way down the river of time

This river rolls like a rocket
It don’t meander and wind
Ain’t a power on earth that can stop it
We’re all swept up in the grind
So find your companion
The one that will love you
All the way till the end of the line
It’s the dearest of dreams
In the great scheme of things
Goin’ down the river of time

I woke up at 30 and started to worry
About the glaring mistakes of my past
I still had high aspirations
But I knew that I’d better move fast
Now I’m starin’ at 40 and oh Lordy Lordy
I’m still a long way from the top
I’ve still got the heart but I’m fallin’ apart
Reachin’ the hands of the clock

Both tracks received enough airplay to chart in the 40s.

The third single was ‘Hopelessly Yours’ written by Keith Whitley, Don Cook and Curly Putman. It had been cut a few years earlier by George Jones, and was a bona fide hit a few years later for Lee Greenwood and Suzy Bogguss. Conlee’s version is melancholy and very effective, but despite its quality it got little attention from country radio. The final, non-charting, single was even better. ‘Don’t Get Me Started’ is an emotional ballad written by Hugh Prestwood which portrays the lasting sadness of lost love:

Well, thank you for askin’
I know you mean well
But friend, that’s a story I’d rather not tell
To even begin it would take all night long
And I’d still be right here and she’d still be gone

So don’t get me started
I might never stop
She’s just not a subject that’s easy to drop
There’s dozens of other stories I’ll swap
But don’t get me started on Her
I might never stop

You see, deep in my heart is a dam I have built
For a river of tears over love I have spilled
And the way I make certain that dam will not break
Is to never look back when I’ve made a mistake

Prestwood contributed a number of other tunes to the set. ‘Almost Free’ is about a relationship on the brink:

Last night you pushed me a little too far
I was not coming back when I left in the car
There was a time, an hour or two
I was feeling so free – from you
I picked up a bottle and drove to the Heights
Parked on the ridge and I looked at the lights
The engine was off and the radio on
And the singer sang and I sang along

And I was almost free
There almost wasn’t any you-and-me
I was almost free
Whole new life ahead of me
Almost free

Sunrise rising over the wheel
Bottle’s empty and so is the feel
This car knows it’s the wrong thing to do
But it’s driving me home – to you
Maybe I’m too much in love to be strong
Maybe you knew I’d be back all along
If I could be who you wanted, I would
If I could forget I’d be gone for good

It’s just too hard to walk your line
Maybe baby I’ll cross it next time

The pacy ‘Where Are The Pieces Of My Heart’ has the boot on the other foot, with the singer left broken hearted when his wife walks away. ‘I Had the Time And Money Too’ has a down on his luck oilman encountering a former lady friend (who has also declined from her glory days):

Forgive if I seem too forward
We have met somewhere before
As I recall you were the toast of Baltimore
And I had just come up from Dallas
My first well had just come in
Don’t tell me you don’t remember you knew me when
I had the time
I had the money too
Yes I did
Honey I even had a girl like you

As you might guess from my appearance
I’ve seen some changes since that day
Most of the things the good Lord gave me
He took away
That’s not to say I am complaining
I still remember how to win
And there’s a still a chance the price of crude will rise again

I’m not even gonna ask you why you’re in a place like this
Why don’t we spring for a bottle and just reminisce?

Wayland Patton and Jim Rushing wrote the idealistic title track:

Mankind is divided into enemies and friends
Locked in a struggle till we reach a common end
We daily court disaster and the headlines clearly show
The key to our survival is to learn to share the road

Fellow travelers
We are fellow travelers
We must roll up our sleeves and tear the walls of hatred down
It’s our urgent labor to inform our neighbours
We are fellow travellers and we walk on common ground

Now scientists are working on a journey to the stars
And all along they’ve told us the first stepping stone is Mars
Oh the road keeps getting’ longer as we move through Outer Space
And we the people must be careful not to lose the human race

‘Knowin’ You Were Leavin’’ is another excellent song. Here the protagonist finds life alone even lonelier than he had expected when his ex departed. Yet another superb track comes with ‘Till You Were Gone’ (also recorded by Shelby Lynne):

Baby I wonder if you look the same
Do you have children?
What are their names?
Does the one that you’re with
Need you all night long
Like I never did until you were gone

I can recall that night at your place
The hurt in your eyes
The tears on your face
Would you take comfort if now you could see
How life without you is torture for me?

This was an excellent album, which is now available digitally.

Sadly Sixteenth Avenue could not sustain itself, and the label folded in November 1990, leaving Conlee and its other artists homeless again. A completed album was left on the shelf.

Conlee’s music for Sixteenth Avenue re-emerged in 2006, when it was licenced by another independent label, Varese. They put out Country Heart, a 16 track compilation consisting of most of the tracks from Fellow Travelers (dropping ‘Don’t Get Me Started’ and ‘Knowin’ You Were Leavin’’) plus eight of the tracks for the ‘lost album’.

‘Doghouse’, which was the current single at the time of the label’s collapse is a fun, tongue-in-cheek song about being in his wife’s bad book and, it turns out, the literal doghouse:

The man’s in the moon and the cats in the cradle and I’m in the doghouse
It never woulda happened if my best friend wasn’t such a loud mouth
She’s heard things that she don’t like about my nights out
Now she’s on me like an old cheap suit
I’m in the doghouse

Well the dog’s eating good and he don’t care
And I’m chewing bones in the cold night air
The whole thing seems just a little unfair
There he sits in my favorite chair

Who ever said they was man’s best friend had it all wrong
When she finds out you’ve been running with the pack you’ll be dog-gone
She says she’s got a bone to pick
Should i sit up and beg, should I fetch a stick
I can’t stay here scratching fleas and ticks in the doghouse ….

I can tell matters are getting real bad
I bit the mailman
I’ve been chasing cars up and down the street instead of women
The dog and the wife are gettin’ mighty thick
Looking through the window just makes me sick
This old dog better learn a new trick

It was written by Kenny Beard, John Bicknell, and Michael Grady.

My favorite of the added tracks is the steel-laced ‘I’m Not That Good At Goodbye’, a tenderly regretful ballad which was written by Don Williams and Bob McDill. It had been recorded by several artists previously, mostly in the 1970s, and is a beautiful song.

‘Black Label, White Lies’ is a beaty song about trying “to save some foolish pride” after the protagonist’s wife has left.

I’ve sat right here too many nights
Saying that women was wrapped too tight
To come undone unless I cut the strings
So I’m buyin’ drinks with this month’s rent
Tryin’ to look like I’m glad she went
Now I got no woman
I got no sense
But I got everybody here convinced with

Black Label and white lies
Sitting round the table tellin’ the guys
How it broke her heart to set me free
Order up another round
Tell them how her tears came down
And try to save some foolish pride with
Black Label and white lies

Written by Scott Wiseman, it was later covered by Confederate Railroad.

The protagonist of ‘Midnight’s Murder On Me’, in the same situation, take the lying one step further by not admitting to his friends his lady has even gone. Writer Kent Robbins also contributed ‘She Woke Up Leavin’’, a pretty good song with a protagonist finding his wife “remembered everything I’d ever done wrong”. A third Robbins song is the excellent ballad ‘Nothing Changed’, in which years have not dimmed the love felt for an ex.

‘I Can’t Stand To Watch My Old Flame Burn’ was written by Curtis Wright with Jeff Knight, an aspiring artist who released a couple of fine records himself in the early 90s. This track has some great fiddle.

‘Indian Head Penny’, written by Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson, is a story song about the life of a coin. The title track, written by Thom Schuyler and Larry Byrom, bemoans city life, and is quite pleasant. ‘Love Stands Tall’, written by Wayland Holyfield, Steve Dean and Sam Hogin, is a tribute to marriage and growing old together.

The newer tracks are not quite as strong as a collection as the original album, but the whole compilation makes great value. Some of the tracks have been repackaged in other collections as well.

Fellow Travelers: A+
Country Heart: A

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