You love Blake Shelton, everyone does. He just won the CMA Male Vocalist again and deserved it. But what he said Wednesday night on the CMA Broadcast is the stuff that legends are made of.
During his acceptance speech on national TV, he dedicated his award to someone you may never have heard of. But you may consider doing so now. He said that his hero was Earl Thomas Conley. Who? And man, were those great words to hear.
Earl Thomas Conley was a star in 1980's country music. Quick stats. He's from Portsmouth, Ohio. Much like a Thomas Rhett, he began as a songwriter. He wrote big hits for Conway Twitty, and Mel Street. Then he started keeping his songs for himself to record ala Brantley Gilbert. He then went on to have 18 number one songs all in the 80's. (including I think, 16 in a row). More than Alabama, and George Strait in that decade. (And keep in mind, there were a ton of others that didn't make number one) He was also the first artist of any genre to have four number one songs off the same studio album. And as much as anyone of that era, he helped set us up for the next generation of mega stars. That was his gift to the business.
You see, ETC was hitting the scene when acts like George Jones, Conway, Dolly, Merle, Hank Jr., Willie, Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers and Ann Murray were among the mainstays. The Urban Cowboy craze was over, and the new kids were Alabama, Strait, ETC, and Ricky Skaggs. Country was struggling to sell music, and tickets. There was only one way to get music then, at the record store. There were virtually no country videos, no country channels, and of course online was years away in 1982.
ETC was different. He and his amazing ETC Band recorded a series of sizzling albums, and hit songs that were of a different DNA. They broke out the horns, the strings, the synthesizers, and went to work. Conley, the songwriter wrote a ton of hits. The music was real, deep, amazingly good and borderline rock at times - for the time. His music sounded as great in dump truck as it did in a Mercedes. He recorded huge songs solo, and with Emmylou Harris, Keith Whitley, and even Anita Pointer. (Yes, The Pointer Sisters fame). ETC also is the only country artist to perform on Soul Train. He recorded some of the most heartfelt and best music of that era, and clearly influenced a very young Blake Shelton. And me too. I was new in country radio at the time and he was a real favorite of mine.
And ETC did all of this at about the age of 40 - 45. Unheard of today, as the stars get younger and younger. 45 today is ancient in the music biz. But we didn't think about that as much at that time. Now this is not some "it was better back then" thing. Because it wasn't. The overall music and the business is way more popular today, and much more mainstream.
But Conley deserves miles more credit than he has ever gotten. His quiet demeanor kept him from being Blake Shelton. But he clearly kicked the door down for the next group that would follow, by expanding the walls of country music far beyond where the relics of that era were willing, or even knew where to go. ETC did it. Then came Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakum, and then the flood of Garth, Alan, Clint, and the rest of 1989. And just as Alabama, Straight, and Conley had shown Jones, and Conway the door, ETC was ushered out as well as the new traditionalist movement moved in. But he helped change things forever. And today almost no one knows about him, and that's sad. Reality, but true.
It was such class that Blake, in that moment in time, his moment - thanked someone that was important to him when he didn't have to. It showed us all that remembering where you come from is a big deal. And somewhere, a now 72 year old Earl Thomas Conley finally heard his name announced on a CMA stage, as he never won one, and that's a crime. He was simply too far ahead of his time. He was playing country rock then - and everyone else was light years behind. And it would be years for them to catch up.
Now we have. Thank you Blake for the making of things right. And Earl, for your amazing music, your long lasting contribution and influence that no one today knew you offered.
Until now. Blake is the Man! Well done!