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An Even Keel Has Kept Country Star John Conlee Grounded

John Conlee play the Normal Theater tomorrow night
John Conlee
John Conlee play the Normal Theater tomorrow night

John Conlee is one of those small-town boys that made good. Coming of age in the 1950s on a farm outside Versailles, Kentucky, Conlee’s family sold eggs door to door and raised sheep and even feeder pigs. Their cash crop at that time was tobacco.

That farm is where the future country star heard music on the radio coming out of nearby Lexington, and especially the Grand Ol Opry in Nashville. 

WGLT caught up with Conlee earlier this week. He said he always seemed to have a hoe in his hand when working on the farm, and particularly remembers spending long days cultivating tobacco and corn with both tractors and mules.

“I got three or four days off in the summer to go visit some cousins and that was it,” recalled Conlee. “Otherwise I was working with Dad on the farm.”

Up at the crack of dawn like most farm kids.

“And down as quickly as possible at night to get ready for the next day,” he laughed.

I'm just a common man, drive a common van My dog ain't got a pedigree If I have my say, it gonna stay that way 'Cause high-browed people lose their sanity And a common man is what I'll be Common Man by John Conlee

Radio was one doorway to music. Guitar was another, as he fell in love with the instrument and eventually took half-hour lessons every Saturday morning in Lexington.

“After that was over I had time to kill, so I’d go hang out at the local radio station across the street from the guitar lesson and fell in love with both. Over time I was able to make a living at both.”

He later worked at that radio station and eventually found his way to the legendary WLAC in Nashville, a powerhouse 50,000-watt station that could be heard all over the south at night, like northern folks who recall their nights listening to WLS out of Chicago. At the same time, he was writing and performing original music, and pitching those songs to the publishers along music row. 

At that time, individual regional radio stations could make a hit record. Conlee remembers when he knew his 1978 release “Rose Colored Glasses” would be a hit.

“One night when I was going from Nashville back to Kentucky to visit, I was tuned in across the radio dial and heard that song on WBAP out of Fort Worth, Texas. As soon as it finished there I went to a Chicago station and heard it played there. That’s when I knew we had a hit, or felt like we did, when I could hear it that quickly when I could hear it on two major markets on those great powerhouse radio station,” said Conlee.

But these rose colored glasses That I'm looking through Show only the beauty 'Cause they hide all the truth Rose Colored Glasses by John Conlee

“Rose Colored Glasses” is one of 32 singles John Conlee landed on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart between 1978 and 2004. Seven went to No. 1, including "Rose Colored Glasses."

Sometimes an artist just knows a song is special after either writing or recording it. Conlee said the song was special to him and he had a gut feeling it might do well. But he had been a radio station Music Director long enough to know the whims of the market can be difficult to predict.

“Sometimes the things you think are going to be the best and do the greatest, don’t. And vice-versa. Something else you didn’t have much hope for ends up being a bigger hit. You never know until you throw it out there and see what sticks,” said Conlee.

His first release was a prime example. “Back Side of 30” didn’t break nationally, though it did regionally. Once “Rose Colored Glasses” went to No. 1, “Back Side” was re-released.

“Based on requests from radio. We reminded them we had that out already. And they said, ‘We know, we’ll play it this time,’” chuckled Conlee. “And indeed they did and it became a No. 1 hit as well.”

Forty years after those songs hit the top of charts, Conlee still has his golden voice, something he self-depreciatingly said was in spite of how he handles that gift.

“I don’t do vocal exercises of anything like that. I’m just blessed to have a voice that has indeed mellowed,” said Conlee. “And now people are trying to get me to re-record some of those early songs in the more mellow later voice.”

Conlee began that process in 2003 with the first of what has turned out to be his “Classic Series” where he re-recorded “Rose Colored Glasses,” “Back Side of Thirty” and “Lady Lay Down,” another staple.

“But people are wanting me to do some of the early albums. I don’t know if I’ll have time to do that or not, but maybe along the way we’ll at least catch some of those songs,” said Conlee.

The mellowing voice is the only perceptible change in Conlee’s repertoire. The songs he writes or chooses to cover have very similar arrangements to what he was releasing in the late 70s and early 80s. The outlaw scene of the 80s and today’s country music with click tracks and lyrics centering on pickup trucks, dirt and dixie cups haven’t found there way into Conlee’s music. He said he can’t change his soul.

“New ‘wanna-be’ artists ask me all the time for advice on how to create a sound,” said Conlee. “Well, you just express your soul and inner being, and whatever comes out of that, you know, that’s what you end up with. If you go about trying to artificially create a sound, it’ll sound just that. And that’s why some of the stuff on new country radio and some of the newer artists, you can tell they’re trying to ‘fake it’ so to speak. And that doesn’t work for my ears. I don’t like it.”

Conlee has never ridden the country waves. As he says, we just were what we were and that just suits him fine. That style extends to his professional team, a few of which are family.

“My mother for instance was my bookkeeper for years and years and years until she passed away,” said Conlee. “My manager is a distant cousin. Bud Logan has been my producer the whole time. I just like that. It’s wonderful to have people around you that you know, that know you, and you don’t have a constant learning curve all the time.”

John Conlee plays the Normal Theater on Thursday night. Showtime is 7 p.m.

WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.

Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.