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Country stars come out to honor Earl Thomas Conley - By Preshias Harris for Country Music News International Magazine & Radio Show

Country stars come out to honor Earl Thomas Conley

Today’s top artists remember ‘the shy genius’

By Preshias Harris for Country Music News International Magazine & Radio Show

It was an afternoon of memories. Earl Thomas Conley was adamant about one thing: he did not want a funeral. But Nashville’s music community could not let Conley’s death prevent a celebration of his life. The result: The Earl Thomas Conley Memorial on 10 September at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater.

Some of Country music’s biggest stars were there to share memories of “ETC” and how his music had affected their own careers. My own memories of Earl Thomas Conley are connected to a different Hall of Fame. The first time I met him was in the 1980s when we both attended an induction ceremony at the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The last time I ever saw him was when my friend Walt Aldridge was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in October 2017. That night, Earl sang his mega-hit “Holding Her and Loving You” that had been written by Aldridge with Tom Brasfield.

As the artists took their places on the stage for the Memorial, I realized how much of my thirty years of memories involved these remarkable singers and songwriters in addition to ETC. There was Luke Bryan and I recalled attending his number one party as a songwriter for “Good Directions” that he co-wrote for Billy Currington before his own singing career took off. Then there was Jason Aldean. I remembered going to one of his first showcases when there were maybe ten people there. Next to Jason was Joe Diffie, and memories came back to me of taking a friend to see Joe receive a Gold Record for his album Honky Tonk Attitude. That friend was Michael Martin who would later become Vice President of Artist Relations at ASCAP.

Then John Anderson took his seat on the stage. I had been an intern for him and his label, BNA Records, at the time of his Seminole Winds album. Then there was Dale Ann Bradley, one of my favorite Bluegrass artists, whom I had interviewed at her induction into the Kentucky Hall of Fame in 2018. Then on over was Neal McCoy, and I was his intern at Atlantic records after I left my internship at BNA. Next to Neal was Wade Hayes and I remember meeting him in the late 80s or early 90s when he was playing for a guy named Johnny Lee as a guitarist at the old Gilley’s in Nashville. All of these stars – and more – talked about Earl Thomas Conley, a unique singer that all of them loved.

Luke Bryan recalled growing up as a kid in South Georgia. “My dad had a Chevrolet pickup with a tape player in it,” he said. “I would say, for five years, Earl Thomas Conley’s tape never left. I don’t know if my daddy even listened to the radio. He just kept that tape in whenever he was in his truck. That was what was playing. And so that’s how I found his music and it just continued from there. Even through playing honky tonks; I mean if you played honky tonks and didn’t do an Earl Thomas Conley slow song you were a fool.”

Blake Shelton revealed that ETC was a very shy man. “He was a very talented guy and I don’t think he ever knew how talented he was. I remember the first time I went to his house, we wrote a song. Mike Pyle introduced me to him and I couldn’t get over the fact that I was sitting there with my personal hero, my favorite singer of all time of any genre of music. I just couldn’t get over how normal he was and how didn’t want to hear about that stuff. He just wanted to get past that and let’s just write this song. He was embarrassed a little bit, I think.” (Shelton, Pyle and ETC wrote “All Over Me,” Shelton’s second single from his debut album.)

Jason Aldean recalled a time early in his music career when he met Conley who invited Aldean up on his bus after a show. That made a big impression on him and how he now interacts with emerging artists. “I think for us as younger artists, it kinda teaches us a little bit about how to handle it when you start having success,” noted Aldean. “How to be cool to younger artists that look up to you. For me, personally, it was just having a sort of having that ‘pat on the back’ from someone like him that early in my career was really cool and it kinda gives you a lot of confidence.”

I asked the artists what was the first memory that popped into their minds when they were asked to do this Tribute to ETC.

Neal McCoy remembered that he and his wife and Conley and his wife had flown out to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to play in a Charley Pride golf Tournament. “We were at the airport, the luggage is going around, we’re waiting on our bags,” said McCoy, smiling at the memory. “There was one bag that had blown completely up. It’s that horror thing that you see your bag and it’s everywhere. There were garments all over the entire thing. We were standing there and just kinda laughing about it. And it ended up being Earl’s wife’s bag, and she just looked at Earl and of course the mood went from laughing to ‘Oh sh*t!’ And she didn’t want to get it. She didn’t want any of it. Earl went and got it all!”

Blake Shelton also shared a unique memory about when he was maybe nineteen or twenty and he was already a big fan of ETC. His friend Mike Pyle was a member of Conley’s band and invited Blake to come to a rehearsal room when Conley and the band would be rehearsing before a tour. “The first thing I remember was I would watch him take these huge, big gulps of air and his chest would just swell up real big whenever he would go into one of his choruses or whatever. As a singer I was going, ‘My God! No wonder he has these huge choruses and these big notes and stuff! Because he has this thing that he does.’ I was just so impressed. I was just staring at Earl’s chest. I was so impressed. I couldn’t get over it. He was like Superman up there! And that was my first memory of Earl, staring at his chest!”

John Anderson said he was proud to call ETC a friend. He recalled a time when they played together on the old Warner Brothers softball team. “I went up to Earl and said, ‘Man, did you write ‘Smokey Mountain Memories’? He said, ’Yeah.’ I said. ‘I’m gonna do that song one day.’ And you know what? I am going to do it one day. Today. God bless you, Earl.” And yes, Anderson finally got to sing “Smokey Mountain Memories” at Conley’s Memorial.

Luke Bryan sang “Once In A Blue Moon” but made the audience laugh when he said, “I chose that one because it’s in the key of C, and as long as I hit the white keys on piano I should do okay. But the funny part about it is that I got the call and I rarely practice adequately. But I start practicing and I’m playing it and I’m feeling it. And I’m like, Man, I’m gonna pull this thing off. I woke up this morning and I’m singing these lyrics like I’ve always sung, and Earl sings so quietly, I never really analyzed the lyrics. I go to my phone and I’m sitting at my piano and I Google the lyrics and the chords. Then I realize I’m playing the wrong chords, and I’ve got a lot of lyrics wrong. So the practice went out the window. But I think “Once In A Blue Moon” is one of his finest achievements.” Luke didn’t need to worry: he received a standing ovation for his rendition of “Once In A Blue Moon.”

Blake Shelton sang “What I’d Say” and recalled getting the call about the Memorial. “And instantly I said, ‘Put me down for ‘What I’d Say,’ before Luke has a chance to pick it,’” he said with a smile. “But after sound checking today, I’m wishing I’d chosen almost anything else. But it’s my all-time favorite Country song and performance.”

Other live performances at the Memorial included “Brotherly Love” (sung by Wade Hayes and Joe Diffie), “Nobody Falls Like A Fool” (Jason Aldean), “Holding Her and Loving You” (Neal McCoy), “With You” (Walt Aldridge), “We believe in Happy Endings” (Dale Ann Bradley), “Fire and Smoke” (Wade Hayes and the ETC Band) and a finale with all the artists singing “Don’t Make It Easy For Me” backed by the ETC Band.

Between the shared memories and the performances were video tributes from Marty Raybon, Brad Paisley, Steve Wariner, The Oak Ridge Boys, Toby Keith, Vince Gill, Trace Adkins and Little Big Town.

It was an afternoon of love and laughter as today’s top Country artists recalled the unique talent and the major influence that Earl Thomas Conley had on their lives as musicians and as his friends. As the event drew to a close, I thought that Conley, the shy genius who never really understood his fame and his impact on Country music, would have been shocked to hear the outpouring of admiration for him.

John Anderson summed it up when he said, “Earl was great. He really was. And his music still is.”

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