Forgotten Artists: Earl Thomas Conley
Earl Thomas Conley was the oldest and most successful of the triumvirate of somewhat similarly named country artist of the 1980s. Born on October 17, 1941, in Portsmouth, Ohio, ETC (as he was often called) had an extended run of success, both as a recording artist and as a songwriter. Between 1980 and 2003, ETC 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, some time 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.
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, who gave Earl his first chart hit with “Leave It Up to Me.” 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) tread water briefly before signing 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 Car”
- “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 him 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 a few minor chart hits as late as 1991. 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, aided and abetted by long-time friends Randy Scruggs and Curly Corwin.
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.
By the time Earl Thomas Conley reached stardom, the amount of recording expected of country stars had diminished considerably. In his decade plus with RCA, seven studio albums were released plus some hit compilations.
Since three or four singles were released off each album, purchasing the hit collections gets you (roughly) 20 of the 70 songs (28.6%) released on RCA. A star of Earl’s magnitude during the 1960s or 1970s would likely have released 25-35 albums during that same window. In the case of Earl Thomas Conley, his best songs usually were issued as singles, so purchase of the hit collections should be enough for the casual fan–especially since many will find the production on the recordings a bit dated and somewhat objectionable (synthesizers, drum machines, etc).
Any recordings predating the RCA years will be on vinyl.
ETC’s recordings with RCA were usually issued on two or three formats (LP, cassette, CD) so you should be able to find most of the RCA studio albums on CD from used music dealers.
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has four titles available. Three of the titles 16 Biggest Hits (MP3), Essential Earl Thomas Conley (MP3) and Super Hits (MP3) are original RCA recordings. The Essential Earl Thomas Conley is the best value with 20 tracks. Super Hits has only 10 tracks.
Unfortunately cult favorite “Finally Friday” (not a hit single) currently is not available on CD.
Earl has his 1998 album available from his website, and may have other product available.
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