Shelton was among 11 all-star acts who came together on Tuesday (Sept. 10) at the CMA Theater at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to honor Conley’s memory with a concert titled Earl Thomas Conley: A Tribute Celebration of Life & Music. Shelton spearheaded the memorial tribute that included performances of Conley classics by Jason Aldean, John Anderson, award-winning bluegrass instrumentalist, Dale Ann Bradley, Luke Bryan, Joe Diffie, Wade Hayes, Neal McCoy, Conley’s daughter, Erinn Scates, and the Earl Thomas Conley Band.
“I wasn’t surprised that he had passed away,” Shelton told reporters before the show. “I knew that he had been in some health problems and had been for a while. I think I was sad because I’m afraid that nobody’s going to remember Earl. This business can be pretty cold as everybody up here knows. That was my fear and with Earl not wanting a funeral, I wanted to be able to do what we’re doing here today.”
Shelton idolized Conley ever since he was first introduced to Conley’s repertoire through a Heartland Music commercial when he was 10 years old. It would be approximately a decade later when they would eventually meet through musician Mike Powell and write their first song together.
“I even connected with him on that stupid commercial because he had the saddest eyebrows when he would sing,” Shelton continued. “It was like, ‘My god. He’s devastated making this commercial.’ But what really struck me is they even said on the commercial that he’d had 17 No. 1 hits in a row or whatever the crazy stat was. Then they started going through all these songs, and I thought, “I love this song. Oh, my God. That’s one of my favorites.’
“From that moment on, he became my favorite country artist of all time. It’s crazy that even through that crazy, cheesy television commercial, he was still able to have a connection with somebody like me who was just a kid. I think that’s the power of his songs and even more, his voice.”
Every artist involved were quick to recall their favorite or first memories with Conley. For Aldean, it was in 2006 when they shared their first show together.
“He knew what a fan I was of him, so after the show, I ended up hanging out on his bus,” Aldean recalled. “I maybe only had two songs out at the time. I think for us as younger artists it teaches us how you’re supposed to handle it when you start having success and how to be cooler to younger artists who look up to you. I think for me having that pat on the back from him early on in my career was really cool. It gives you a lot of confidence that you [can] lean on. As an artist, he was ahead of his time. When he hit the scene, his music didn’t sound like anything else that was out. His voice was amazing. He was a guy I looked up to a lot. That pat on the back from him was pretty special that early in my career.”
Bryan said Conley’s music immediately takes him back to childhood rides in his father’s Chevrolet pickup truck.
“I would say for five years, Earl Thomas Conley’s tape never left [the tape player],” Bryan exclaimed. “I don’t even know if my daddy even listened to the radio. He just kept that tape in, and when he was in his truck that was what was playing. If you played honky-tonks and didn’t do an Earl Thomas Conley slow song, you were a fool. He was just one of the best vocalists and stylists that’s ever lived, in my opinion.”
Anderson and Conley were both right fielders on the Warner Brothers corporate softball league and would often compare notes on their journey in music during games.
“It was two young guys out there standing out there with big dreams and a lot of hopes,” Anderson recalled. “And in the next few years, we got to see each others’ dreams come true. That was always special about our friendship. We started out pretty much at about the same place, and we both ended up doing OK. Earl was great. He really was. His music still is.”
Conley was one of Diffie and Hayes’ first major concert experiences. “He was playing in Rush Springs, Okla. at the Rusty Spur,” Diffie said. “I just remember I loved all his songs and I loved watching his live show. That’s why I’m here is just to honor him, and he had one of the best voices.”
Hayes said one of the first music purchases was a ’45 record of “Fire and Smoke.” “I was just a child when he came to my county fair in Oklahoma, and I went to see him,” Hayes recalled. “I saw him riding around in a golf cart. He had a tracksuit on, big ole shades, and I couldn’t stop myself. I went up and asked him for his autograph. He was very shy. Flash forward I ended up to do shows with him. I went up on his bus, and he was the exact same way. He was very quiet and shy.”
McCoy compared attempting to sing Conley’s music is like enrolling in a masterclass on becoming an emotive entertainer. “One thing you don’t notice until you start singing them is the range of Earl’s songs,” he said. “Listening to these guys and hearing the range that you have to get to, it’s like a Conway [Twitty] song … Man, they stretch it; not only from an emotional standpoint but just from a range standpoint. He never looked out of control.”
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Yesterday marked 5 months since we lost my favorite person, my dad. Being in a room of people, who adored him just as much as I did, to honor him, was the most beautiful, heartbreaking, and heart filling thing I have ever experienced. Thank you so much to everyone who came to celebrate my father with us. Thank you for loving him. A special thank you to @blakeshelton, for not only playing such a big part in this day, but being such an amazing friend to my dad. For as much as you adored him, I can assure you the feeling was mutual. Thank you to all the artists that sang: @johnanderson @wadehayesofficial @lukebryan @jasonaldean @nealmccoy @officialjoediffie Thank you @billcodywsm and @devonoday for hosting. Thank you to dad’s band, my second family for playing and crying with me. And to you Dad, I hope wherever you are, you saw how much we loved on you yesterday. And how much we miss you. Forever and always your babydoll, Erinn ❤️ #earlthomasconley
Bradley noted that Conley’s approach to music was similar to how bluegrass musicians approach their craft. “His approach to singing, writing and picking was exactly like the bluegrass pickers and singers,” she said. “It’s all about the truth. The put their heart into it. Those lyrics are so deep and very expressive of the emotions that you feel in life. He wrote that down in a very well extraordinary way. You can feel the hurt, the happiness, the honky-tonk. That’s kind what bluegrass does, too. It’s the real deal. He was the real deal.”
Scates shared a funny memory of how her dad left her hanging live onstage when they were supposed to do a duet. “Sometimes we’d do shows together, and he’d just spring stuff on me last minute,” she said. “We were supposed to do a duet together in Kentucky. And we were walking out, and I was like, ‘Dad, are we going to do the song?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I guess.’ After I walk onstage, he’s like, ‘I can’t do it.’ So naturally, I had to improvise. For the rest of the night, I was scathingly mad at him. He finally came back on the bus, and he was just staring at me and nodding. I was like I better get an apology. He said, ‘Boy, I’ve been there.’ He meant well. He just told me to do the best you can. When it doesn’t work out, so be it. You’re going to have to get over it.”
Tuesday’s performance was an invitation-only event with 700 of Conley’s closest friends, family and colleagues in music. Among his 18 No. 1 singles were “Holding Her (And Loving You),” “Fire and Smoke” and “I Can’t Win for Losin’ You.” Every artist who participated chose the songs they wanted to sing.
Here is the set list:
Earl Thomas Conley Band
“Somewhere Between Right and Wrong”
“Too Far From the Heart of It All”
“Smokey Mountain Memories”
Wade Hayes & Joe Diffie
“Nobody Falls Like a Fool”
“Holding Her and Loving You”
Walt Aldridge & Michael Pyle
Dale Ann Bradley
“We Believe in Happy Endings”
“Once in a Blue Moon
“What I’d Say”
Earl Thomas Conley Band & Wade Hayes
“Fire and Smoke”
Artists and Earl Thomas Conley Band
“Don’t Make It Easy For Me”