Earl Thomas Conley’s New Album Is A Found Treasure

“Promised Land: The Lost Album” is a promise kept to his fans.

Written by Vernell Hackett
Earl Thomas Conley’s New Album Is A Found Treasure
American country music singer Earl Thomas Conley (1941 - 2019) performs at the Poplar Creek Music Theater in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, May 26, 1985 in Hoffman Estates, Illinois (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Earl Thomas Conley always maintained that the reason he got into music was to express himself. Conley, who passed away in April of 2019, has an album of new songs that releases today (September 25). He had always promised his fans one more album, and family and friends say he would be so proud to finally have this album available for them.

“I think anyone who was a fan of Earl’s would absolutely relish this album – it is so Earl,” says Fred Conley, Earl’s brother. He traveled with Earl for many years singing harmony and then moved on to manage him. “It is such quality writing. I think they will see the album as Earl never lost a step. It’s a gift and I don’t think the fans will be disappointed.”

In a 1986 interview, Earl talked about his writing opening the door to music for him. Before he had a record deal, “Smokey Mountain Memories” was recorded by Mel Street and “This Time I Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me” was recorded by Conway Twitty. “Writing was the first step that opened the doors to the rest of it (career) for me,” Earl said. “Songwriting keeps me really in tune with myself so I have to write.”

Earl Thomas Conley – Promised Land: The Lost Album; Cover art courtesy of BFD / Audium Nashville

“Physical Attraction” is the oldest song on the album, dating back to the early 1990’s. The other 11 tunes were written in the late 90’s to early 2000. The album itself was recorded in 2000-2001. It was produced by the late Nelson Larkin, Earl’s producer on his debut album, “Blue Pearl,” released in 1980 on Sunbird Records. The production is true to Earl’s style and the songs are classic ETC. The opening lines of the first track, “Better Said Than Done,” co-written by Earl, Larkin and Charlie Allen Bouton, leave no doubt whose album you are listening to. Songs range from ballads to up-tempo tunes, which is much in keeping with Earl’s previous recordings.

“When you record an album, you have to keep three different people in mind – your fans, live performances and radio,” he explained in a 1984 interview. “An album has to have an intensity, as far as the up-tempos go, and then it has to have a softness to it, as far as the dynamics go. It is a natural thing for you, as a writer, to write those different kind of songs.

“The other thing to remember is not to get to heavy for people, not to get too serious. Most of the real serious things you might like to write as a songwriter could go over people’s heads, so you have to be careful of that. I have had people ask me what I meant in a song, and that’s when I realized I had to be careful.”

Earl followed his own advice to a T on this album. From the mid-tempo “Workin’ My Way Down” and “My Heart’s Just Her Old Stompin’ Ground” to the funkier sound of “She Just Wants To Dance” and the beautiful ballad, “Your Love Is Worth It All,” the songs move through all the emotions of first love, heartbreak and realization.

Carole Scates, Earl’s significant other, co-wrote “Love’s The Only Voice” with him. It was released last year on Sony Legacy’s 40 Essentials on digital format only. Fans now can have it on CD or digital. Scates remembers the two of them having a conversation about relationships, acknowledging that there are times when relationships are based on what one partner can do or give to the other. “That is so often a one-sided relationship,” Scates acknowledged. “We started writing the song and the title didn’t come up until later, when we said ‘Love is the only voice that you should consider, doing and living for each other, equally, or it’s not going to work or last.

“He had way more patience than I did for writing songs. He would go line by line, figuring out how to say it better and what was needed to make it work. He was meticulous and that is why it took so long for him to write a song. He would think of different phrasings he could use and keep at it until it all worked for him. He told me one time, ‘Picasso would sneak into museums and try to work on his paintings after they were on display. That’s what I would do if I could. I totally understand Picasso.’

“He was the same way in the studio. What you expect is that someone would go in the studio and sing the song all the way through and then go back and fix anything they thought needed to be better. Not Earl. He went line by line, singing it, then listening back to it and doing it again and again until he got it exactly the way he heard it in his head.”

Scates says Earl would say, “Well it’s about damn time,” about the release of the album. “It’s something he always wanted to do, give his fans another album because they were always asking him when he was going to put one out. So after he recorded it, he was more than ready to have it released. But things kept happening and it was never released while he was here. It would make him so happy that it has finally seen the light of day.”

Erinn Scates, Earl’s youngest daughter, says she was young, but she remembers her dad working on the album. “The songs filled the walls of the house and it was pretty much everything we knew for a while. It is bittersweet for me that it is finally out.”

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Promised Land: The Lost Album is the soundtrack to my childhood. Maybe that’s why I personally vouch for how meaningful the lyrics are. To me, this album is an intimate look into Dad’s mind. He wrote and recorded these songs in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and we had the privilege of listening as he played them on his guitar. I wish he could be here to see this album be brought to light, but I’m sure wherever he is he’s saying something along the lines of “Well it’s about damn time.” This collection of songs are dedicated to his fans, and the man who spent the last years of his life creating them. We love you #earlthomasconley *** ‘Love’s the Only Voice’ is available on all streaming services right now! ***

A post shared by Erinn Scates (@erinnmarie615) on

Erinn, who is an aspiring singer/songwriter, says she remembers one instance, when she was four, where Earl had bought her a Fisher Playhouse guitar and microphone. There is a video of them sitting on the couch and Earl is tuning the guitar. “He started singing and me and Kat (her younger sister) chimed in singing with him. He would tell me, ‘You do high harmony here.’ He would do that all the time to us.”

Being around Earl, Erinn constantly heard what a great songwriter and performer he was. “It took me 20 years to realize what everyone was saying. Dad was pretty private, and he didn’t really talk about people bragging on him, it was almost like it embarrassed him. It didn’t really dawn on me until his Tribute Concert last year (September 10, 2019), when all those artists were honoring him and saying how great he was and what an influence he had been on them.”

Earl was one of those artists who was so recognizable, with a distinctive voice and sound, that he was instantly recognizable when you heard one of his songs come on radio. “Fire and Smoke” was his first number one, and he followed it with “Holding Her and Loving You,” “Honor Bound,” “Don’t Make It Easy For Me” and “What I’d Say” to have 18 number ones. In fact, during the 1980’s, he was among the top three chart makers alongside Alabama and Ronnie Milsap. In 1984 he made musical history when he became the first artist in any genre to have four number ones off of one album, “Don’t Make It Easy For Me.” The title cut plus “Holding Her and Loving You,” “Your Love Is On The Line” and “Angel in Disguise” were the songs that brought him that distinction.

Conley wasn’t without controversy with his music, which had hard-hitting lyrics about real life and all of its emotions. “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong,” about a one night stand with a woman who tells the man, “I can be had but I can’t be bought, and I can be bad, lord if I don’t get caught.” He also caught a little flack from “Heavenly Bodies,” which is about another one-night stand where the guy talks about doing his stargazing on the ground where “all those heavenly bodies come out at night to play.”

“If people are questioning something you write, then the question itself will lead you to the truth,” Conley once said. “If you’re causing someone to think one way or the other, at least they are listening to what you’re saying.”

During the Tribute concert that honored Earl last year, artists including Blake Shelton, Wade Hayes, Dale Ann Bradley, Neal McCoy, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan talked about the singer’s influence on their career. They all praised his songwriting and talked about how honest he was in his writing. Earl acknowledged back in 1986 that he sometimes thought about the influence he might be on upcoming artists, just as he had been influenced by Hank Williams Sr.

“I hope I have an influence on the new artists and I hope I encourage them to do more of their own thing,” he said. “Hank Williams, do you realize what a radical he was? A lot of people don’t. They don’t think of him being an outlaw or a radical, but he definitely did his own thing.”

Scates said having the album out is really a thank you from him to his fans. “He still has a fan base and those people are still supporting his music. He told me once that in the 80s he had these great fans and then they had children who loved his music and now they have children who love it. He said, ‘Now the grandchildren of my original fans are coming to our shows and we have a whole new fan base.’”

Bob Frank, whose Bob Frank Distribution is releasing the album, says he has been a fan of Earl’s for a long time and he is proud to be releasing the album. “I didn’t know about the album until a couple years ago,” he said. “His producer had told me there were tracks that had never been released but I had not heard them. We’ve been working on getting the album released for about three years now.

“We were all fascinated when we heard the album the first time – it sounds like something that would have been recorded today. I’m glad that we are able to get it out there for people to hear. It’s nice to be able to put out music by these classic artists who have these super fans who still want to hear it.”

The cover of the album is a drawing that Earl did when he and Scates were building a patio. Earl also released his creativity through art, so it was no surprise that he had to sketch out the patio before they started on it. “He had all the dimensions, the arbor and bench and steps off from the patio and a sidewalk leading off of that. I looked at it and thought ‘This is a piece of art.’ I think the drawing is an insight into who he was. I liked the fact that the steps leading to the pathway are perhaps steps to the promised land.

“His music was much like his art. He had to build it from the ground up. He would make revisions; he would change things. We liked using this drawing for the cover art because we wanted to showcase that his attention to detail bled over into everything that he did.”

Fred remembers going over to see Earl and listening to some of the songs that ended up on this album. “He was so high on playing me this music. He played me ‘These Clouds I’ve Been Walking On’ and it just floored me. Then he played me a few more and one of them was ‘Love’s the Only Voice.’ It just was very moving for me because they were so great. I was thrilled he was continuing to write, and he was singing as good as ever.”

Fred agreed that the album is all Earl, reminiscing that they used to get hassled because they had two lead guitars. “We were stretching the boundaries … but I thought that was part of the magic of his music … a part of his uniqueness. The album sounds like Earl from beginning to end …  Earl wouldn’t have recorded it any other way. He would never have done anything that wasn’t true to his style and sound.

“I’m just so proud that it is out. It’s a gift and I don’t think his fans will be disappointed.”

Earl Thomas Conley – Promised Land: The Lost Album Track Listing

  1. Better Said Than Done (Earl Thomas Conley, Charlie Allen Bouton, Nelson Larkin)
  2. Love’s the Only Voice (Earl Thomas Conley, Carole Scates)
  3. Workin’ My Way Down (Earl Thomas Conley, Bob Corbin, Bat McGrath)
  4. How Much Heartache (Earl Thomas Conley, Ron Reynolds)
  5. My Heart’s Just Her Old Stompin’ Ground (Earl Thomas Conley, Ron Reynolds)
  6. That’s What a Fool Deserves (Earl Thomas Conley, Ron Reynolds)
  7. Takin’ Me Away From the Promised Land (Earl Thomas Conley, Ron Reynolds)
  8. Those Clouds I’ve Been Walkin’ On (Earl Thomas Conley, Ron Reynolds)
  9. I Still Love the Girl (Earl Thomas Conley, Ron Reynolds)
  10. Your Love is Worth It All (Earl Thomas Conley, Nelson Larkin, Ron Reynolds)
  11. Physical Attraction (Earl Thomas Conley, Wade Kirby, Randy Scruggs)
  12. She Just Wants to Dance (Earl Thomas Conley, Ron Reynolds)