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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Earl Thomas Conley--An appreciation

Earl Thomas Conley's "Holding Her and Loving You"

Few country artists were as successful in the 1980s as Earl Thomas Conley, who died yesterday at 77.

Only Alabama and Ronnie Milsap scored more No. 1 country singles in that decade than Conley, who had 18. In 1984, his Don’t Make It Easy for Me album made him the first artist of any genre to have four No. 1 singles (the titletrack, “Angel in Disguise,” “Holding Her and Loving You,” “Your Love’s on the Line”) from the same album.

“My heart is absolutely destroyed today,” tweeted Blake Shelton, with whom Conley co-wrote (also with Michael Pyle) his 2002 hit “All Over Me.”

“Earl was my all-time favorite singer, hero and my friend,” said Shelton. “We will all miss you deeply my brother.”

Also via Twitter, Big & Rich’s John Rich said Conley was “a huge influence on my style and songwriting. I studied his records like text books and could play every note of every song. Truly one of the all-time greats in country music.” And, “Man what a voice this guy had,” tweeted Jason Aldean. Spent many nights listening and playing his songs. Country Music lost a great one today guys.”

For music historian John Alexander, Conley was “a truly unique artist in country music [who] helped elevate the form with songs that went far beyond the boundaries of the genre.”

Alexander remembers calling Conley “the thinking man’s songwriter” in a 1982 feature for Country Rhythms magazine.

“I didn’t realize at the time how appropriate that was,” he says. “I was drawn to him because of the caliber of songs he was writing and recording. Along with artists like Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, Earl’s songs were deep, probing statements on the human condition. They were more thought-provoking than your standard country song of the day. But what made Earl unique was that his voice was more akin to Haggard and Jones than anything else. He was recording pure country, but with a songwriter’s soul.”

Conley’s 1980 debut album Blue Pearl included such “incredible” songs as “Middle Age Madness,” “Silent Treatment” and “When You Were Blue and I Was Green,” says Alexander, “which were head and shoulders above anything I had heard in years--maybe since Kristofferson. He later enjoyed a long string of chart-topping hits, but he continued to write songs like ‘Crowd Around the Corner,’ ‘Home So Fine’ and ‘Like Cinderella’--buried gems on his albums.”

Ironically, continues Alexander, Conley’s "two most important hits--’Holding Her and Loving You’ and ’What I’d Say’--were not written by him, “but you would never know it, and no one can replicate his original performance of either song. If there is any justice in the universe, Earl Thomas Conley deserves to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame: He revered the genre and helped elevate it to another level. And the proof is that his influence on performers has spanned decades, from Randy Travis to Blake Shelton. For me, that's the mark of a true innovator and artist, and the country music community should embrace and honor his legacy.”

Nashville talent buyer and tour arranger/producer/manager Trisha Walker-Cunningham met Conley shortly after moving there from England, then introduced him in Europe.

“He explained the radio chart system to me at a Christmas party!” she fondly recalls. “I took him overseas to Holland to do a car commercial to ‘Holding Her and Loving You,’ and then to play a club show in London. He was such a lovely, gentle and talented man with a great voice and great songs and the audiences that came loved him. I was so blessed to work with him.”

Alexander feels blessed as well. Himself an aspiring songwriter when he wrote a cover story on Conley for Country Rhythms, he traveled with him throughout the South a year later for a followup article.

“Eventually I got the nerve up to let Earl hear some of the songs I had written,” says Alexander. “Without any fanfare he talked to his producer Nelson Larkin, who at the time also headed up Famous Music [publishing company] in Nashville. Thanks to Earl, Nelson signed me to Famous and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to write songs and have them recorded. I genuinely owe Earl so much for having faith in me as a journalist, songwriter and most importantly, as a friend.“



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