Earl Thomas Conley, one of the most successful country music artists through the 80’s decade, and known for his “thinking man’s country” style of country where heartbreak, story, and character played a critical role in creating the deep appeal for his music, has passed away. Conley was 77-years-old. He died at 12:20 a.m. Wednesday (4-10) in Nashville according to his brother Fred Conley. He had been suffering from a condition similar to dementia, and was receiving hospice care in recent months.
Conley helped define country music in the 80’s when he charted more than 30 singles, including 20 that went #1 between 1981, and 1989. “Holding Her and Loving You,” “Fire and Smoke,” “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong,” “Love Out Loud,” and many others became staples of country radio in the 80’s decade, with the only factor to Conley commonly being overlooked as one of country music’s greatest contributors of all time being his almost immediate disappearance from the format in the aftermath of the “Class of ’89” when country took a strong commercial turn.
Earl Thomas Conley was born October 17, 1941 in Portsmouth, Ohio, and later moved to Jamestown, Ohio as a teenager. It was while serving in the Army that Conley first began singing as part of a Christian music trio. After being discharged from the Army in 1968, he decided to pursue country music as a career, and found inspiration from artists such as George Jones and Merle Haggard. He began playing clubs in the Nashville area, and officially moved to the city in 1973. While working day jobs, Conley would perform at night, and participate in writing sessions, which is where he found his first major success penning “Smokey Mountain Memories” for Mel Street, and “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More” for Conway Twitty, both hits in 1975.
However Conley continued to struggle, and gave up on country music as a full time pursuit for a while, moving to Huntsville, Alabama to work in a steel mill. It was there he met Nelson Larkin of GRT Records, and began recording singles for the label. Though his success was limited, Earl Thomas Conley songs continued to get interest as a songwriter. Eventually Conley signed to a Nashville publishing house, and in 1979, finally signed to Warner Bros. as a recording artist.
From there, Conley charted multiple #1 singles every year between 1983 and 1988, including one stretch where 17 out of 19 straight singles hit #1, with the other two hitting #2 on the charts, including a duet called “Too Many Times” with Anita Pointer of The Pointer Sisters. Only Ronnie Milsap and Alabama charted more #1 singles in the 80’s than Earl Thomas Conley.
Late in 1989 is when Conley’s career hit a rough patch, and never recovered. He was dropped from his label in 1992, and tired of the business, the politics of the music industry, as well as suffering from vocal issues, he took a hiatus from recording until 1997. Afterward Conley’s contributions were light, but he still participated in the country music community for many years. One of his biggest champions was Blake Shelton, who co-wrote his 2002 Top 20 hit “All Over Me” with Conley. Shelton was the first to report on Conley’s passing Wednesday morning.
“My heart is absolutely destroyed today,” Shelton said. “Earl was my all time favorite singer, hero and my friend. Prayers to his family. We will all miss you deeply my brother. Now go rest…”
Due to the limited era of his impact, Earl Thomas Conley’s contributions to country music have never been given their proper due. But his influence on the genre goes much farther than the 80’s. His embrace of strong, thoughtful songwriting is still the benchmark for many writers today, and he helped define country music as the genre of not just twang, but storytelling.