“Thinking Man’s Country” Legend Earl Thomas Conley Has Died
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.
April 10, 2019 @ 10:59 am
20 number one singles is an incredible accomplishment. I think that entire era of music was overshadowed by the class of ’89 artists that immediately followed. Conley, as well as Alabama, and Milsap, don’t get their due.
April 10, 2019 @ 11:03 am
I grew up in the ’80’s with parents playing a steady diet of ETC tapes right alongside Willie and Strait, he in part represented that era in my mind. And going back to those albums as an adult, I was even more surprised to see how many of those hits he wrote himself – a true overlooked artist.
April 10, 2019 @ 11:04 am
ETC was one of the hottest acts in country music when I started listening in the early 80s. I’m really sorry to hear of his passing.
King Honky Of Crackershire
April 10, 2019 @ 11:06 am
ETC was a prime example of good, “evolved” C(c)ountry.
He was also a prime example of C(c)ountry music for adults; deep, adult-themed songwriting.
April 10, 2019 @ 11:13 am
Grew up on his music. Sorry to lose this legend.
April 10, 2019 @ 11:13 am
Damn. Another great gone. “Once in a Blue Moon” pops into my head at least once a week. He was a totally underappreciated talent, as others have said, almost forgotten after the class of ’89 came along. Requiescat in pace, ETC.
April 26, 2021 @ 10:29 am
Right on Brother !
April 10, 2019 @ 11:24 am
Country music has lost a truly underappreciated legend. He was definitely on the list of 80s-90s artists I wanted to see live, but I guess YouTube will have to do for now. He knew how to tell a story through song and how to pull you into it, and so many artists could learn a lot from studying his music. Thanks for everything, Earl.
April 10, 2019 @ 11:27 am
Too many great songs to mention! Fortunate to see him in concert a couple of times. Never a disappointment! Your music will live on in my heart for sure!! 😢💔
September 13, 2020 @ 4:10 pm
I once extended a business trip so I could catch him in a honkytonk a bit south of Dallas (I think it was). ‘Bought and got signed an ETC T-shirt, too!! This guy was truly something special.
Travis in Virginia
April 10, 2019 @ 11:27 am
As a 90’s kid I never really dug into Earl’s catalog as I was to busy enjoying the best decade in country music. But in the early 2000’s as I hit 18 I discovered how great classic country was. ETC was one of the first artist I discovered! His music, while not hardcore Instrumentally, cut to the bone like the great country songs I loved! I will forever use “Holding Her And Loving You” as my Karaoke go to! RIP friend, thanks for all the great music
April 10, 2019 @ 11:36 am
The term “underrated” is way overused these days. Earlier today, I actually read someone say a particular singer, who’s in multiple halls of fame, was underrated. But ETC is a singer who actually deserved much more appreciation than he got. His string of hits is as strong as anyone’s. Trigger’s last line, about ETC’s contribution to positioning country music as more about storytelling than anything else, does a great job of encapsulating why he was so great.
My recommendation to everyone who reads this: go to youtube, and watch a video for a song that wasn’t a single: “Crowd Around the Corner”. Time well spent.
April 10, 2019 @ 1:44 pm
thanks james …..didn’t recall this tune …..beautiful sentiment .
i can hear this song with an acoustic-only arrangement ….fiddle , mandolin , guitar , double bass. the best ones can stand the test can’t they ?
September 13, 2020 @ 4:07 pm
Thanks for the tipi! That IS a great song.
April 10, 2019 @ 11:38 am
One of the best. RIP ETC.
April 10, 2019 @ 11:40 am
More #1 singles than guys like George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash despite being on a major label less than 15 years. I worked for a country station in the late ’80s, and as whenever a new ETC single arrived we place bets on when (not if) it would hit #1. And when his run was over the faucet was turned off just as quickly as it was turned on.
April 10, 2019 @ 1:05 pm
He had more solo #1s than Willie, but counting duets and collaborative efforts, Willie had more.
April 10, 2019 @ 11:48 am
Sad end to a well lived life.
April 10, 2019 @ 12:08 pm
I have always loved Earl Thomas Conley and his music.He never got the recognition he deserved.He was a great singer.I saw him in concert.He was great. He will be greatly missed.
April 10, 2019 @ 12:16 pm
Just talking the other day about who the next great country singer to leave is would be and this was a rather quick and unexpected answer. One of my favorites. “What I’d Say” is my all time favorite ETC song. RIP
April 10, 2019 @ 12:32 pm
Great singer with a long list of great songs. Heavenly Bodies is one of my favorite ETC songs.
April 10, 2019 @ 1:15 pm
We’ve got a old school playlist we use to walk my newborn before bed. ETC is represented with What I’d Say and his duet with Keith Whitley on Brotherly Love. Classic vocalist! RIP
April 10, 2019 @ 1:17 pm
An underappreciated artist. His songwriting was top notch and his singing was great too! I’ve been hoping his name would start coming into discussions for the Hall Of Fame for a while now and I just hope this doesn’t push him too far back.
April 10, 2019 @ 1:31 pm
Earl Thomas Conley was a name I felt would be emerging for Hall of Fame contention in the coming years in the Modern Era category, now that some of the bigger names have been inducted and are out of the way. However they have a rule that states that an artists can’t be inducted the year after his death, so it won’t be next year for sure. I totally understand the need for a sympathy rule, and I’m not sure Conley would be a front runner next year anyway. But I do hope to see his name bubbling up as a serious candidate in the next 3 to 5 years.
April 10, 2019 @ 5:33 pm
If they’re only going to admit two artists/acts per year, and they’re wasting picks on “artists” like Ray Stevens, ETC will probably never get in. From the artists who first hit before Conley, there’s still Johnny Horton, Hank Jr., Tanya, Jerry Lee and Paycheck to induct (if the latter two aren’t blackballed for their personal histories), and they’ve already moved on to the New Trad/Garth era.
April 10, 2019 @ 10:14 pm
Johnny Horton being absent has bugged me for over 20 years! I hate the new induction criteria: one modern, one veteran, and one non-singer. If Johnny Horton, Hank Jr, and Jerry Lee all got enough votes in the same year, they should all go in. Who cares if a producer or musician or one “modern artist” doesn’t get in one year? I remember one year where they inducted 12 or so different acts at once.
April 10, 2019 @ 1:23 pm
Interesting…I did not know the Blake connection. After rock took a turn towards punk, new wave and 80’s synth, I started listening more and more to mainstream country music. ETC was a big part of that experience. I always felt he was under appreciated and never got the critical acclaim he was due. His duet with Emmy Lou, “We Believe In Happy Endings” was one of several highlights. And it don’t get more country than “Holding Her and Loving You”.
April 10, 2019 @ 1:24 pm
ETC was a truly great voice. I grew up in his era and well remember him dominating the charts. I wasnt always crazy about the arrangements of those tunes, as I have always favored more traditional sounds, but his songs had great lyrics, serious melody and that voice. Man, Earl it sucks that you aren’t with us. You are seriously missed.
April 10, 2019 @ 1:27 pm
My favourite singer of the 80’s.
Thank you for the music & rest in peace.
April 10, 2019 @ 1:34 pm
It’s the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do.
April 10, 2019 @ 2:43 pm
Somewhere between right and wrong, what a great song.
Michael Lee Gevedon
April 10, 2019 @ 4:11 pm
Had a chance to record a couple of songs in a studio once one was Holding Her and Loving You and the other was Family Tradition. I did a lot of Earl Thomas Conley songs. I still love his music. I’m also half Conley . Rest In Peace and I hope to run into you and we will sing on the other side.❤️❤️
April 10, 2019 @ 5:04 pm
My mom met ETC back in the day, and she asked him about his songwriting. He told her, “all the songs I wrote are true. I’m still paying for ‘Holding Her and Loving You’.”
RIP to a favorite among my family.
April 10, 2019 @ 5:39 pm
Very sad news. I’ve enjoyed introducing other people to his music over the years. Like Don Williams and Keith Whitley, he had the uncanny ability to draw you into a song.
April 10, 2019 @ 5:56 pm
My mom aunt both worked with him. In Huntsville, Alabama. It broke my heart
Strait Country 81
April 10, 2019 @ 6:18 pm
He was a good one going through his songs forgot just how many i like.
April 10, 2019 @ 6:32 pm
Loved ETC. My favorite was “Oh, you’ve got your head in the clouds and your heart in a bind…” He wrote the soundtrack to my teens.
April 10, 2019 @ 6:55 pm
Earl Thomas Conley was one of my favorite country singers of all time. I have most of his vinyls and CDs. He will be missed.
April 10, 2019 @ 7:31 pm
ETC was a legend that never received proper recognition. He and Keith Whitley took many a KISS and Aerosmith teenager and converted them to country in the early 80s. I recently rediscovered his music from a cassette tape stuck in an old Ford Truck that I bought. I scrapped the truck a few months ago but the tape is still a prized possession. There are a few that just make you feel like you actually knew the man. ETC was one. I hate that I never got to hear him in person. I will be imitating his voice and singing his songs to the day I die. RIP friend.
April 10, 2019 @ 7:48 pm
So loved ETC…His music was true country, and will live on. May you rest in peace, keep singing on in heaven.
King Honky Of Crackershire
April 10, 2019 @ 7:50 pm
I just found out Jim Glaser died on Saturday. Are you gonna write anything?
April 10, 2019 @ 10:41 pm
As I always say, I write as many obituaries as I can, but I can’t write one for everybody. I prioritize huge names, and artist nobody else will write one for if I don’t. If I find out about a death late, it often is of little value to write an obituary people have already read somewhere else, unless I have something constructive to add. I always make sure to honor ALL the fallen country greats in In Memoriam segments I run at the end of the year, and sometimes mid way through.
April 11, 2019 @ 11:01 am
Jim Glaser should be the poster boy for the ACM’s Best New Male Artist award’s confusing criteria, having been a member of the Grand Ole Opry (with the Glaser Brothers) for over 20 years and charting a dozen singles as a solo artist over the course of 15 years when he won the award in 1983.
April 10, 2019 @ 7:51 pm
ETC definitely had a way with words – his songs telling stories in a way that very few can. I really was in the Class of 89 – the year I graduated high school. So many memories from those days are tied to ETC songs.
April 10, 2019 @ 8:18 pm
It had to have been close to ten years ago I think, but I went to see ETC st Gruene Hall on a Wednesday night I believe. Blake and Miranda were there and it was not all that packed, since it was a midweek show. Earl was not feeling well and was getting pretty fatigued it seemed like at times. Blake got up on stage with him and helped out on some of his songs, so ETC could kind of catch his breath a bit. You could see how much Blake looked up to him. His songs were real life grown up stuff. His songs were as good as any ever done lyrically. You don’t see mainstream songs about such real life deep issues any more. It would be hard for me to pick a favorite, it was just one great one after another.
April 10, 2019 @ 11:00 pm
Earl’s sister left a lovely comment on Blake’s Facebook post that spoke to part of your comment. Quite sweet, and such a big loss.
“Blake, this is Ronda his sister here in Nashville. I want to thank you for always recognizing him and his talents. He was somewhat like our dad and didn’t say much about some things, but your friendship meant so much to him. He was proud of that and the fact you stayed in touch. The basket you sent him at Christmas was still in his cabinet. Thanks again.”
April 11, 2019 @ 1:32 am
Well this sucks.
One of my favorite sayings is that pop-country isn’t bad by default or definition; it’s just that it used to be a whole lot better. ETC is one of the names I think of every time I make that observation.
April 11, 2019 @ 5:42 am
I agree completely. I would love to get to the point where we had more hardcore outlaw type country, traditional country and pop country all going at the same time, but all of them being really good. I honestly don’t like to listen to the same style all of the time, but I want it to be good and we have gotten away from that.
April 11, 2019 @ 7:21 am
Yup. I don’t mind pop-country, especially when it’s actually good, but the key is to have a mix of styles, kinda like they did back in the ’70s and ’80s. This all-bro/metro-country-all-the-time that’s been the hallmark of the 2010s has absolutely destroyed the mainstream part of the genre.
Root Beer Man
April 11, 2019 @ 2:22 am
This sucks! This sucks! This sucks! This sucks!!! Never got the chance to see the man in concert! Loved the muffins out of his music, though! I’d argue that he was the best of all-time! Certainly was always MY favorite country singer, anyway… R.I.P. Mr. Conley!
April 11, 2019 @ 5:55 am
I bet ETC and Kieth Whitley are singing together now…RIP
April 11, 2019 @ 6:34 am
Loved his music. A raw talent. He touched the heart. Not many artist can do that.There is not one song that he did that l didn’t absolutely love. Rose colored glasses Yard sale. It reminds me of my stepfather when l hear his music. Miss you Papa Jack and rest in peace ETC
April 11, 2019 @ 11:12 am
I think you may be referring to John Conlee, ‘Rose Colored Glasses’, was his song.
April 11, 2019 @ 10:22 am
Seeing Josh Ward tonight in Memphis. Saw him once before and he opened with “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong”. I know what he’ll be playing tonight.
April 11, 2019 @ 10:29 am
This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me…one of my favorite hooks.
April 11, 2019 @ 11:44 am
I remember seeing videos of him performing in nearby venues and even 10-12 years ago it was obvious he wasn’t in the best of health. Had no idea he was 77 already … guess that speaks to the days when country music wasn’t marketed to kids much and a “hot new act” might be a veteran artist in his 40s who was finally catching a break. I’m sure that’s part of what gave his songs that extra depth and maturity, even though they were still catchy as hell sometimes. Sorry he’s gone but glad his pain has ended.
April 11, 2019 @ 3:13 pm
Keith Whitley would sometimes jokingly end his show by saying ” If you liked me, I’m Keith Whitley, and if you didn’t, I’m Earl Thomas Conley.” I cant imagine anyone not loving both of them! RIP.
April 11, 2019 @ 5:36 pm
You don’t often hear Earl Conley mentioned among “singer-songwriters” (In fact I’ve never heard it), so in checking him out on Wki, I was surprised to learn that he wrote many of his own hit songs, including some of the most-remembered early ones, like “Love Don’t Care Whose Heart It Breaks” and “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong”–and most of them as a solo-writer. Early in his career, before he hit as an artist, he also wrote “Smokey Mountain Memories,” which became one of Mel Street’s most remembered songs.
April 11, 2019 @ 5:51 pm
I was the same way. I had no idea that he had written so many songs.
April 12, 2019 @ 8:36 am
Isn’t it interesting how memories color perceptions? Everyone now without a doubt considers ETC country music. Even though he relied on the latest studio technique rather than traditional country instrumentation, except for his very first album and parts of the very last. With synthesizers on ‘Angel in Disguise’, pounding percussion on ‘Don’t Make It Easy For Me’, or electronic drums on ‘Honour Bound’ (all number 1 songs) as examples, he stylistically placed closer to Phil Collins, than George Jones.
Also calling his music thinking man’s country shows, that he is considered different from the typical country music of the time. Fittingly, although emotional pain is so prominent in his lyrics, the classic country theme of alcohol never comes center stage in his songs. None of his hits were classic story songs.
The often cited Soul Train reference (Anita Pointer!) shows, that he was not only welcomed but with the appropriate promotion he might have been also successful outside of the genre.
To underscore it all, he never won any awards from any of the country academies, although they could not omit him from having nominations due to his phenomenal commercial success.
In the end he was doing in the 80s what Thomas Rhett or Old Dominion or Dustin Lynch are doing today. Would he have been on the hate-list of this web site as well, had it been operative back then? Should radio have refused playing his music, because he was not real country?
It’s fairly predictable that todays generation will also develop the same fondness for music they hear on (country) radio when growing up, not questioning it, as long as they like it.
April 13, 2019 @ 12:28 pm
I agree. There was nothing particularly country-sounding about Earl Conley.
“Soul Train” appearance notwithstanding, I get the sense that there might have been as much prejudice against white singers on the R&B side as there was against black in country. If you were a white American singer with and R&B edge, and were not an out-and-out rocker and didn’t sing with the bombast of Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond, then country radio was probably the place that offered you the best shot at being heard.
April 14, 2019 @ 4:23 pm
“Can’t Win For Losin’ You” – one of my all-time favorite songs.
April 17, 2019 @ 10:18 am
Very sad news. ETC was a great singer/songwriter. I have several of his CDs. He will truly be missed. R.I.P.
February 26, 2021 @ 5:07 pm
Just a few people can express their thoughts and talents in a way that touches your heart and soul.
Earl Thomas Conley was one of the few.
His lyrics and music showed that “he got it”. He knew the feeling of yearning and heartache, but he also knew how it felt to really love and to experience the occasional joy.
Now God only knows the sound of his voice.
Hopefully, we will all be able to hear him again!