Earl Thomas Conley Interview
In 1975, his song “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Love Me” became a Number One hit for Conway Twitty.
A song he wrote and recorded “Fire And Smoke” became a Number One Hit on the Billboard charts.
His 1983 song “Holding Her And Loving You” won the Country Song Of The Year Award.
He became the first and only country artist ever to appear on the t.v. show “Soul Train” where he sang his 1986 hit duet with Anita Pointer of The Pointer Sisters, “Too Many Times”.
If you said – “Hey-----that sounds like Earl Thomas Conley-----you’d be right!
Mr. Conley talked with us about his career.
Q – You were the only country artist to ever appear on “Soul Train”. That’s a Big Deal, but we never hear your name mentioned concerning that. We never hear people talking about that. Why do you suppose that is?
A – Well, it didn’t happen to them that’s why. (Laughs).
Q – You grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio.
A – Yeah.
Q – And you say it was a depressed area?
A – Still is. When I was a kid they had a lot of shoe factories, steel mill, railroad, those all big business and then they got that river, Ohio river comes down through there and there’s a lot of things being shipped in and out of that place by way of river. So, it was a big town, not a big town, but a lot of big time industry.
Q – So, your father lost his job and you went to live with your sister in Dayton (Ohio). What happened to your mother, did she stay behind?
A – Yeah. My father and mother both did. Later on, after I come back after the Army I talked ‘em into moving up there, to Xenia, Ohio where I was living. Dad was never happy and later he got called back to work. (Laughs). He got a chance to finish up before he passed away.
Q – What did he do?
A – He spent all his his time on the railroad and then he was working for the State. Bored to tears and totally depressed, (Laughs), until he got his job back.
Q – You were really into art and were offered an art scholarship.
A – Yeah.
Q – But, you turned it down and went into the Army. I don’t understand.
A – I’d had enough of school. They had it all fixed up where I had a scholarship to go and I could get a part-time job and help out. I turned into pretty much a spoiled kid. My sister spoiled the dickens out of me which was good and bad at the same time. But, I’d had enough of going to school and so I decided to say well, maybe I need to get out and see the world by way of the military. And, I’m glad I done all that stuff because it’s like being in the military cooped up with a bunch of people and traveling on the road like this gets you used to that you know. (Laughs).
Q – You didn’t mention discipline. You must be disciplined to do everything you have to do on the road?
A – You’re right.
Q – It’s not the fun most people envision it is.
A – We just got back from Monument Valley up in Utah. We flew to Albuquerque for 7 hours, and from there we had to drive, for 6 more hours. Then came a huge storm out there. We got there in time to take a shower and about an hour or so left over to get to the actual venue which was outside of Monument Valley. Came up a dust storm, (laughs), and then we had to head right back when the show was over to Albuquerque to catch the plane back. So, it ain’t all a bed of roses, you know. No sleep at all. We were supposed to have flown out through Delta to go to Atlanta the night before, but there was a storm down there, so all the flights got cancelled so we had to come out of there early in the morning the day of the show. It’s not fun.
Q – Is it rare for a person who isn’t from the South to be in Country music?
A – I don’t know. I’m trying to think of some examples.
Q – I know Garth Brooks and Carrie Underwood are from Oklahoma.
A – I don’t know if you remember Connie Smith. She was from Ohio. She had a lot of hits in the 50’s and 60’s, especially the 60’s.
Q – I know of a guy from Syracuse, N.Y. who tried making it in Nashville and after a year or so returned home. It was a frustrating experience.
A – I was working in a steel mill. I knew it was gonna close but, that ain’t the reason I moved out of there. I moved down to Huntsville to be closer to the industry. I could work them clubs down there and then move back up to Nashville when I got everything lined up. But, I tromped the streets just like everybody else and started as a songwriter. In ’74 I had some success with a song and then in ’75, I had a Number One song with Conway Twitty so I was able to keep myself going, but it took forever to get to that place. Like I say I was living in Huntsville working in those clubs. I had to finally quit that because I probably drink it up more than I was making.
Q - You were part of a band?
A – Yeah. We worked in different clubs. Actually we worked 7 days a week, 5 hours a night and then 10 hours on Sunday. It just got – WOW! let me out of here!!!
Q – That’s a good training ground for anyone in showbiz.
A – It’s a good education. Sure was.
Q – Musicians today don’t have that.
A – No. It’s a different world now. Nowadays it’s built on the principle of you can make somebody a star. Those days you were either born a star or you did the best you could. But, there was a lot more soul back then. Most of the people through hard times developed. They were going on their own spirit and soul back in those early days. It’s all they had. Nowadays if you’re pretty and you can sing half-way decent, they can tune you up. But, it’s more like a marketplace.
Q – You don’t last as long these days. The line is moving right along.
A – One Hit Wonders. There’s a few stickers. There’s some really good girl singers that are happening now. You just don’t know what peoples been through to get where they get, so, it’s hard to criticize anybody. I just don’t like this cookie-cutter type of stuff that goes on ‘cause all the music sounds alike when you do that. Some of the producers copy the demos and I’ve done some of that too-----copying a demo ‘cause it was so much better than you could come up with in a studio, but some of these things are already produced. (Laughs). There’s not a lot of originality.
Q – Maybe we’ve reached a point in history where you can’t come up with anything original in music anymore.
A – That’s right. Well, movies the same way. That industry is just copy cat stuff too. The thing about it is, it really makes you appreciate a Beethoven, a Bach, and all these people that have done it, like listening to the spirit. It came straight from inspiration. They were just people who got into a zone and stayed there. It’s amazing what they knew. You can’t out do what they’ve done. Classical music, there are a lot of things going on. It’s just amazing. It’s far beyond me. My approach was simplicity all the way, heart and soul, but man these guys were total, absolute, inspired geniuses.
Q – How do you know when you’ve written a good song? I’m not necessarily talking about a song that gets recorded or goes to Number One. How do you know when something is good?
A – Your spirit tells you. Your soul tells you and confirms it. First of all I get stuff that I know I can believe in. If you don’t, who is gonna believe in it? Nobody. (Laughs). That’s always the way I looked at it. If I can’t do it conveniently, as if I believe in it, how can I expect anybody else to? I think realism is about the only real thing you’ve got to sell if you want longevity.
Q – Your first success was collaboration with Dick Herd that produced the song “Smokey Mountain Memories”.
A – Yeah.
Q – Do you write with someone these days or are you strictly a solo act?
A – Most of the time I’m writing alone. I’ve written a few things with some of the boys in the band and several different people over the years. Dick Herd had a little label called GRT Records. We worked a few nights and got that ‘Smokey Mountain Memories’ going. That was the first one that I had that got me started as a songwriter.
Q – According to your bio. by 1991, you were pretty much disgusted with the music business.
A – Well, I worked 230 some shows, or I was out there for that long. My father died that year. I discovered I had allergies and started getting hoarse and losing my voice. I had all these shows booked. It was just really a painful thing to even do.
Q – What did you do about those allergies?
A – I had to take off the road and shut down for about 3 years. I had a voice operation. There was a polyp on my right vocal chord and it didn’t really amount to anything. It was mainly my allergies that did all this but, we didn’t know at the time. They discovered all that when they put the camera in the throat. Then, I went and had allergy tests and started taking different allergy pills to see what I could do to get rid of it. And – it took 5 or 6 years. Then I started writing again and doing demos. I found out it was coming back. It’s such a mental strain on you to lose your voice. I was so tired and burned out from running so hard that I was welcoming the rest. That’s when I got into playing golf all the time. So, I did a few demos of the songs we were writing. I started going out after I discovered I could sing again and put a band together, and started having success again. The kids that were in school and too young to come out to see us when we was having hits in the 80’s, were in college and started coming out. So, I had all that support and then all the people that loved my music from the beginning, the moms and dads. Now, we have all ages, especially on the concert things. Not the bars, but, just the regular concert things we do, the theatres. You have kids and everybody else coming out, people 80 years old. So, it’s pretty cool.
Q – You were disenchanted with the policies of the music business.
A – Still am.
Q – What exactly does that mean?
A – The people that tell you what to do don’t know what they’re talking about because they weren’t there when you got there.
Q – Who are you talking about?
A – Well, mostly the record cos. See, my stuff started with Bluegrass music. That’s what inspired me. The people that come out of those hills in West Virginia and Kentucky. And of course Hank Williams Sr. down in Alabama. These people at the very beginning, when I started listening to it. I was born in ’41 and I was raised up on that early stuff. Coming out of those mountains there’s a different soul and a different feeling and a whole different deal than what it would be like to come from the city. It would be a whole different kind of music. But, what happened is a lot of people came down from the big cities like L.A. and New York a lot of ‘em and come down here. They don’t have that. They’re in a position to make people stars, I’ll put it that way. I don’t like them telling me what to do. I went through it. I was raised up in those hills. I was raised up poor and from the country. Somebody that’s not a part of that, there’s no way in hell they can tell you what is right and what is wrong.
Q – What exactly are they telling you?
A – What songs to cut and it’s usually a manipulative move to get their publishing. (Laughs). For you to sign up with their publishing. Not only that, but they get into management like that. It’s just that somebody that don’t know any better shouldn’t be telling me how to do what I do. Right as this was happening, I had to change procedures. I worked too hard.
Q – Record cos. are trying to get you to record material…..
A – Of things that they had control of. The main thing that got to me was the control stuff. I had people that were the head of the whole deal, the label, pitch me some of the worst songs I ever heard in my life. Didn’t really know what a good song was.
Q – What did you think of that song “Achy-Breaky” Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus?
A – I thought, well, it’s a cheap shot but, it’s really a good one ‘cause people love it. I think most of all, just like some of the Garth Brooks stuff, success is success. You can’t argue about it.
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