Bursting into the U.S. country charts during mid-1978 with Rose Coloured Glasses, one-time disc jockey John Conlee quickly found that a music hobby could be profitably turned into a career. Over four years later he's still turning out the hits. Alan Cackett brings the story up to date…
As far back as 1954 Steve Sholes, RCA's much respected a&r man Nashville, was predicting that country music would eventually become indistinguishable from mainstream pop. To a certain extent his prediction has been very accurate, but there are always exceptions to the rule, and Nashville is still able to produce artists who can sing straight, unadulterated country music and still be highly successful.
One of these artists is John Conlee, who in little over four years has enjoyed four Number One country hits and more than a dozen Top Ten single entries. But in Nashville, where image seems nowadays to be of paramount importance, Conlee sticks out like a sore thumb. In his mid-thirties, he is much too overweight for his own good, and his singing style is from some other era, and certainly not in keeping with Nashville's new hip image presented by the likes of Barbara Mandrell, The Oak Ridge Boys and T.G. Sheppard.
John has no inclination for a flashy career image. He's a farm boy who had never got the rural life out of his blood. You will find the real John Conlee within the lyrics of Sammy John's Common Man, which John included on his BUSTED LP. He grew up in the Kentucky community of Versailles, just outside of Lexington, where he tended crops, horses and cows on 400 acres of rich farmland.
Like so many country folk, music was an important pastime for the young John Conlee, and when he was only nine years old he sang the Elvis Presley song, Love Me Tender, at an end-of-term function. By the time he was in high school he was singing the rock hits of the day, but his initial love for country music remained. He formed a folk trio in his later high school days and sang the songs of Peter, Paul & Mary, The Kingston Trio and The Brothers Four.
The three members continued with the group after graduation, by which time John was in morticians' school training for what he believed would be his future career. Singing at the time was just a hobby, something he wanted to do just for the fun of it. In the early 1960s he received his call-up papers, so the trio was disbanded.
Following his demob he decided not to pursue his undertaker's trade, but try instead for a job within radio. He started on a station in Fort Knox, where he worked as a newsreader. Then he moved back to Kentucky, initially at Elizabethtown, and then to his home-town of Versailles, where he became the new radio station's first programme director and later manager.
Four years working on small stations and Conlee felt he was ready to move to a larger station, and ironically he made his move to Nashville to work as a DJ on WLAC, one of Music City's rock stations. Though a lot of the music he played was rock, he became music director for the station, and much of his work was with middle-of-the-road, and easy-listening music. With his deep-rooted love of country music and his own musical inclinations, it was only natural that after a few years in Nashville John would be bitten by the singing bug again. He still treated music as a hobby, and began to write songs, just for something to do. Pleased with the results, he teamed up with Dick Kent, a DJ from Missouri, and they began to pitch the songs around the Nashville studios. John recorded the demos, and Jim Foglesong, president of ABC Records' Nashville operation, was as impressed with Conlee's vocalising as he was with the songs.
He was signed to the label in 1976 and went into the studios with Bud Logan, the ex-Blue Boy, as producer. The first single, Hold On, failed to make any impression, as did the next one, Backside Of Thirty; then came Let Your Love Fall Back On Me, and still John Conlee hadn't cracked it, even though they were excellent singles. At the time he was still working the early morning show on WLAC and had been unable to do shows to promote his records.
He was given one more chance with his fourth single, Rose-Coloured Glasses, a song he had co-written with Glenn Barber. It climbed into the top five of 1978 and led to Conlee thinking seriously for the first time of making his music into a career, and not a hobby. In November his next single Lady Lay Down, a song co-written by Rafe VanHoy and Don Cook, hit the top spot on the country charts and coincided with the release of John's first album, ROSE COLOURED GLASSES.
It was, there's little doubt, an impressive debut. His previous singles were all included, and one thing that hit me was that in songs like Hold On, It'll Be Easy and the title tune, John Conlee came across as a fine songwriter in his own right. His best creation though was undoubtedly Backside of Thirty, one of the classic country songs of the past five years. The saga of the lonely, divorced man in an empty apartment reflecting on what life had been all about was very moving.
Surprisingly it missed the charts when first released as a single in 1977, but the spring of 1979 found it climbing the charts as it was picked out of the album by enthusiastic DJs. It didn't stop until it hit the coveted Number One spot. In conjunction with producer Bud Logan, Conlee filled that debut album with excellent material. There was She Loves My Troubles Away, a song co-written by Rayburn Anthony and Max D. Barnes, which is surely destined to become a major country hit soon, and then there's Some Old California Memory, a song from the pen of Doodle Owens, which is lyrically strong, instrumentally enticing and surprisingly melodic.
With two Number One country hits plus another top five entry, it seemed that John Conlee had made quite an impression on the country scene, but sensibly he was not ready to rush headlong into problems. His career build-up was going to be a steady, well-planned exercise. He decided in the summer of 1979 to give up his DJ and radio work and began working weekend dates with a pick-up band.
His fourth hit single came, with Before My Time, a Ben Peters' song offering a smoking ballad fashioned by the special quality of Conlee's vocal. It was a top-three hit in the autumn of that year and led to an excellent second album, FOREVER. There were no John Conlee songs, but plenty of quality tunes from writers like Rafe VanHoy, Curly Putman, Deborah Allen and Willie Nelson.
The next single, Baby, You're Something, was taken off the album and reached a respectable top-ten position in the early months of 1980. A string-filled ballad with a rich vocal sound, it maintained the quality of Conlee's previous hits, but I cannot help feeling that some better songs were overlooked on this superb album. One that springs to mind is Let's Keep It That Way, a song that has since been well covered within country music circles. The potential problems with infidelity are outlined in this slow, memorable tune that gave Juice Newton her first country hit.
Though John Conlee sings with conviction and a voice full of experience about love lost and found, rejection and marital problems and joys, he is, in his mid-thirties, still a bachelor. He is also a homebody. A person who would love to settle down and have a family, but is also prepared to wait until the right person comes along. The only way he has used his money from his successful musical career is in the purchase of his 33-acre farm in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
Having lived most of his early life on a farm, the possibility of owning his own farm had long been a priority, and John found this hill piece of land with its large house, which had previously belonged to Glenn Martin, ideal for his needs. It is like something you'd see in an old western; rough-hewn logs, barn, massive fireplaces, a long ranch-hands' dining table on two huge whiskey barrels, beamed ceilings and more than spacious rooms including the 700 square foot living room that doubles as a rehearsal room.
Because the land is so hilly, there's little crop planting, though John is busy raising cattle. He intends to use his country refuge to find the tranquillity that working on the road denies him. He is a singer who wants to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. There's none of that 'look at me, I'm a big star' aura about him, he is just an ordinary guy who loves to sing. And so far he's been highly successful.
The spring of 1980 found him climbing the charts again with Friday Night Blues, written by Sonny Throckmorton and Rafe VanHoy, this song about the different temperaments in a marriage is marked by some compelling keyboard work and sensitive vocalising by Conlee, who gives the impression that he's been through it all many times before. That summer it became the title song of John's third album, which was good if lacking in a special distinction to elevate it from the acceptable to the essential. She Can't Say That Anymore, a Sonny Throckmorton song that owes a great deal, melodically, to Allen Reynolds' Ready For The Times To Get Better, was the next single, and another big hit. It was now just two years since Conlee had made his debut on the country charts, and he had already notched up seven top ten hits. He joined the Grand Ole Opry, one of a growing breed of new young artists who acknowledge the importance of the Opry, and went from playing taverns to the circuit of top-flight nightclubs and concert arenas.
By this time he had formed his own road band, a tight, six-piece outfit that also included Norma Hanna, the singer who opens his shows and handles harmony behind him. Because he is still a bachelor, John and Norma have been linked romantically, but the singer insists that he is still looking for that someone special to share his life with him.
Sonny Throckmorton teamed up with Curly Putman to write John's next hit single, What I Had With You. The story of a man fighting back memories of a broken love affair is rendered with conviction. The instrumentation is as stark as Conlee's delivery is grim, but all the right images are brought into play. The sad tone was maintained with the next single, Could You Love Me (One More Time), an old Carter Stanley song that suited Conlee perfectly. He delivers this slow, plaintive tune with style as fiddle licks balance out the sad crying steel guitar.
That song was one of the tracks on John's fourth album, WITH LOVE, which was released in the summer of 1981. Once again he had chosen some outstanding material, but nothing matches the superb Miss Emily's Picture, a moving song from Red Lane, which gave the singer another chart topper that autumn. Writers like Rafe VanHoy, Curly Putman, Bucky Jones and Bobby Braddock were responsible for some excellent songs on this LP.
Braddock came up with I'd Rather Have What We Had, the follow-up to Miss Emily's Picture. Another strong story song with an inspiring and often chilling back-up vocal effect. It was a good single and showed yet again that John Conlee, with the help of Bud Logan, his producer, was still finding the very best songs to suit his thoughtful, expressive vocal delivery.
Rather surprisingly, for his first single of this year, he updated the old Harlan Howard song, Busted, which also became the title tune of his fifth album. It fitted neatly into the plight being experienced by many American working class families, who were out of work in one of the worst slumps in living memory. The whole album, recorded in just three days during December last year, was the simplest of all of John Conlee's albums.
The string arrangements, which at times had come close to spoiling the effect on his previous albums, were missing, and instead there was a simple country combo which gave some strong and compelling songs like A Little Of You, A Woman's Touch and Nothing Behind You, Nothing In Sight, just the right instrumental support. That latter song, co-penned by Harlan Howard, is Conlee's latest single release.
The killer track on the alum was I Don't Remember Loving You. The combination of two of Nashville's finest writers—Harlan Howard and Bobby Braddock—came up with a classic. The song concerns a broken man, ruined mentally by a marriage break-up, who is in a mental hospital being visited by his ex-wife, a person he refuses to remember. It's one of those songs that could so easily be made sickly and unpleasant, but Conlee handles the lyrics so masterfully that it emerges as something of a modern-day country classic.
It's Conlee's ability to bring reality to the tales of broken romances, love lost and found, family problems and infidelity that has made him one of the best new country vocalists. He never wallows in the sadness and heartbreak, but puts across the messages convincingly and with compassion. Though he is now a big name star in Nashville, he still considers himself to be an everyday person. He is very much a 'common man', and it is because of his closeness to the ordinary working man that makes him great and so totally believable.
John Conlee Album Discography
Rose Coloured Glasses – MCA MCF 3040 (British release)
Forever – MCA 3174
With Love – MCA 5213
Friday Night Blues – MCA 5246
Busted – MCA 5310
All the above are U.S. releases, except where indicated.
First published in Country Music People, November 1982