Remembering Earl Thomas Conley

The Ohio-born country great died on April 10 at 77

Earl Thomas Conley

Country music lost one of its greatest performers of the past 40 years when Earl Thomas Conley died on April 10 at age 77. Brother Frank Conley told the Tennessean that the Ohio-born star spent the last several months in hospice care while battling a condition “similar to dementia.”

Only Ronnie Milsap and Alabama surpassed Conley’s consistency as a hit-maker in the 1980s. That decade alone brought Conley 18 number one hits, including a then-record four off one album, 1983’s Don’t Make It Easy for Me.

During his commercial heyday, Conley crossed genre barriers, becoming the first country artist to appear on Soul Train while promoting a hit duet with Anita Pointer of the Pointer Sisters. He also kept country’s family circle unbroken, teaming quite often co-writer and producer Randy Scruggs, the son of banjo-picking legend Earl Scruggs.

After the hits stopped coming in the ‘90s, Conley became an elder statesman for a new wave of country stars.  Blake Shelton’s 2001 debut album includes “All Over Me,” a single co-written by Conley and in-line with the veteran’s introspective take on storytelling.

To fully grasp why a sensitive soul with a strong voice helped run the yard in post-outlaw and pre-Garth Nashville, dive right into Conley’s music, beginning with this 10-song roundup of his most important recordings.

 

 

“Silent Treatment” (1980)

A decade of chart dominance began with one of Conley’s finest in-studio performances as a vocal stylist. It also sets the pace for a playlist that often deals with matters of the heart.

 

 

“Heavenly Bodies” (1982)

A night out chasing women gets likened to stargazing in this cross between easy listening pop and Tex-Mex country music. It’s a co-write by jazz great Lee Ritenour.

 

 

“We Believe in Happy Endings” (1988)

Conley teams with the angelic voice of Emmylou Harris for this rootsy revision of a Johnny Rodriguez hit from the prior decade. It’s one of several duets in Conley’s catalog, which includes a team-up with Anita Pointer of the Pointer Sisters (“Too Many Times”).

 

 

“Once in a Blue Moon” (1986)

By ’86, Conley was country fans’ go-to guy for sentimental tunes. Think of him as a PG-13 version of Jim Reeves or any other Nashville Sound-era crooner when revisiting this stretch of his career.

 

 

“What I’d Say” (1988)

For his most touching song, Conley introduces a broken-hearted man, wrapped up in his internal dialogue about what he’ll say next to a former lover. It was one of the better low-tempo hits of its time, until Garth Brooks rewrote the rules with “The Dance” and its happy ending.

 

 

“Nobody Falls Like a Fool” (1985)

Conley’s 10th number one hit in five years represents his peak as not just a superstar armed with a constant string of catchy tunes, but as one of the decade’s definitive entertainers.

 

 

“Smokey Mountain Memories” (1980)

One of Conley’s first big breaks in the ‘70s came after this co-write became a minor 1975 hit for Mel Street. Conley’s own bluegrass-inspired recording proves that his vocal delivery and lyrical style suited more than the post-Urban Cowboy airwaves.

 

 

“Fire and Smoke” (1981)

Conley struck that perfect balance between tradition and pop accessibility, mastered back then by the likes of Mickey Gilley and Kenny Rogers, for his first of 18 number ones he’d chart in the ‘80s.

 

 

“Holding Her and Loving You” (1983)

As a great county singer should, Conley made listeners feel the drastic differences between lingering heartache and new love. For this single off the album Don’t Make It Easy for Me, he walked the tight rope between both emotions without teetering too far toward vengeance or requited lust.

 

 

“Brotherly Love” (1991)

Although Conley recorded this duet with Keith Whitley in 1987, it did not appear on an album until both Conley’s Yours Truly and Whitley’s posthumous Kentucky Bluebird arrived in 1991. The tale of unconditional love between siblings became a heartfelt farewell to Whitley, who’d passed away unexpectedly on May 9, 1989.

 

Bobby Moore

Bobby Moore grew up in rural Northwest Georgia surrounded by country, bluegrass, and gospel music. Like a backslidden Baptist, he distanced himself from his upbringing for the longest time, turning his attention to underground rock ‘n’ roll. Moore first rediscovered his musical roots as a public history graduate student (University of West Georgia, 2011). As an intern with the Georgia Humanities Council, he helped plan a Georgia tour of the Smithsonian’s traveling New Harmonies exhibit. He’s since become an Atlanta-based freelance writer and Rock and Roll Globe contributor who dreams of working in Nashville as a public historian. Follow him on Twitter @heibergercgr.

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