Earl Thomas Conley’s life and legacy was celebrated Tuesday afternoon as part of a memorial concert held in Nashville. Five months after the singer’s death, hundreds of family members, friends, country artists, songwriters and industry professionals packed the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater in remembrance of the late country legend.
Ahead of the tribute concert, the performers spoke with Billboard and other members of the media to share memories of Conley and explain how his music helped to shape the genre as well as their careers. Shelton, who called Conley “my personal hero,” recalled the first time he met the singer as a 20-year-old as well as the first time the two wrote together.
“The first time I ever went to his house, we wrote a song 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,” Shelton said. “I couldn't get over how normal he was. Over the years, I think he accepted the fact that I truly did worship him. I remember every interaction he and I ever had. It was always a big deal to me.”
Shelton said Conley was a shy man and didn’t want to have a funeral. “This is as close as we’re going to get here today,” he added.
Shelton saw early success with “All Over Me,” the second single he released and wrote with Conley. “All Over Me” peaked at No. 18 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in 2002. Ahead of performing Conley’s “What I’d Say” during the memorial, Shelton admitted he was so nervous ahead of that co-write and drank too much coffee before he arrived at his hero’s home.
“I got there and said, ‘Do you have a restroom anywhere close?’ I went there and I shut the door and I turned around and I was in such a panic that only in that moment did it hit me: ‘I'm at Earl Thomas Conley’s house right now, not in the writer's room.’ And as I stood there, all I could think of was, ‘Earl Thomas Conley has sat on this toilet,’” he said as the theater erupted in laughter.
One of the standout performances of the afternoon included Bradley’s bluegrass cover of Conley’s “We Believe In Happy Endings.” Taking the stage as a trio, Bradley and her bandmates received a standing ovation for their stirring three-part harmonies on the hopeful tune. A huge fan of Conley herself, the singer said she cried when she heard the news of his death in April.
“His approach to singing, writing and picking was so similar and actually exactly like the bluegrass pickers and singers; it's all the truth. They put their heart into it. Those lyrics are so deep and very expressive of emotions that you feel in life. He wrote that down: the hurt, the happiness, the honky tonk,” she said. “He was the real deal. He was a class act and bluegrass people have always and will always love Earl Thomas Conley and revere him.”
Added Bryan, “He’s one of the best vocalists and stylists that’s ever lived in my opinion.” Bryan, who grew up on a farm in south Georgia, recalled his father only playing a cassette of Conley’s music when driving around in his Chevrolet pickup truck. “That’s how I found his music and it just continued from there.”
Hayes -- who performed two songs during the tribute, including “Brotherly Love” with Diffie and “Fire and Smoke,” Conley’s first No. 1 in 1981 -- recalled listening to the latter on vinyl shortly after it came out. “He was one of the first celebrities I met,” Hayes told Billboard. “He was a big influence as a child, and I loved his music and his whole career.”
Backed by his own band, Aldean performed a soulful acoustic rendition of Conley’s “Nobody Falls Like a Fool” during the tribute. A longtime fan of the late singer, Aldean recalled first meeting Conley in 2006 after having admired him as a kid.
“He was such a staple on the radio back in those days. All of his melodies are catchy and heartfelt,” Aldean said. “It was country, but it had some pop in there a little bit. It was a little cooler than everything else that was out … As an artist, he was ahead of his time.”
The 90-minute tribute celebration served as a way for each artist to remember Conley as well as help his country legacy thrive. Conley died on April 10 at the age of 77 after suffering from health issues.