One of the tracks on John Conlee’s latest album is his take on Guy Clark’s sturdy slice of common sense, “Stuff That Works.” The song’s lyric, which affirms the wisdom of sticking with the tried and the true, is right on target for the salt-of-the-earth singer. Conlee, who lives on a farm north of Nashville within close range of his three children and three grandkids, also owns the farm he grew up on in tiny Versailles, Ky (pop. 8,950). Even after the fame he gained with a lengthy string of hits beginning with 1978’s bittersweet waltz “Rose Colored Glasses,” the Opry star and in-demand performer’s way of life has remained largely the same throughout his 68 years.
“If I’m home, I’m in work clothes and brogans . . . as opposed to, you know, shorts and a tank top,” says Conlee with a laugh, seemingly tickled by the thought of donning leisure attire. “One of the things I like about [country] music is that it tells the story of real, everyday people, whether they’re on the farm, or in the factory, or just working folks. The common man,” says Conlee as punctuation, probably in deliberate reference to his 1983 No. 1 hit of the same name. “I grew up that way, I still live that way, nothing’s changed.”
Neither has Conlee’s approach to recording been altered over the years. For Conlee, it’s still all about the song. “We look for songs,” he says, “that do have meat on their bones and have stories to tell that touch my heart.” By “we,” Conlee means himself and Bud Logan, his producer throughout his four-decade career. “The same songs that catch his attention catch mine, normally,” he says. “And the process in the studio is still the same. We haven’t changed anything, basically, since day one.”
The longtime musical partners clearly haven’t lost their song-hunting knack; in fact, an originally proposed single-disc project has become a planned two-volume set, owing to the amount of fresh material Conlee and Logan have amassed. The first of the two, the just-released Classics 2, is itself a long-awaited companion volume to 2000’s Classics, which gathers Conlee’s MCA singles in sparkling, digitally remastered sound. For the new album, he and Logan re-recorded his post-MCA-period hits from scratch, along with more than a half-dozen new tracks. A primary impetus for revisiting the earlier material, though, was due to one of the few things that has changed for the singer: Conlee’s voice.
“[For] most people, the voice mellows,” he begins, “and mine has done that. It’s more fun to sing now than it ever has been. It takes less effort.” Conlee, who attributes the change both to aging and to having given up cigarettes about 20 years ago, notes that his fans “like my voice better now.” Conlee, whose vocal performances now reveal a finer grain and a slight deepening of tone, remains a distinctive singer and quite possibly an even stronger interpreter in this phase of his career. (For evidence, listen to his recently recorded version of Bill Anderson’s “A Lot of Things Different,” which finds Conlee tackling, with moving results, the recitation-based song about a man putting enduring regrets to rest.)
These days, Conlee says he feels especially driven to deliver positive messages in a variety of forms, all in hopes of bringing encouragement to families and offset the effect of troubling turns in contemporary culture. For Classics 2, he chose to include a message of support directed toward America’s beleaguered law-enforcement community. The timely and topical number, titled “Walkin’ Behind the Star,” has arrested the attention of many with its reminder that America’s police are doing their jobs with bravery and commitment in the face of an ongoing wave of media criticism that Conlee believes is “emboldening the bad guys.”
Conlee’s opinion is that news reporters are failing to take into account some vital facts about the daunting challenges policemen face when dealing with lawbreakers. “It seems to me that while the character of the criminal is ignored, the cops are the ones who are not given the benefit of the doubt until all the facts are known. All of us,” he concludes, “would be better served if we were allowed to make up our own minds after being simply told who, what, when, where and how, without all of the speculation.” It’s a subject about which Conlee has strong feelings and plenty more to say. On the brighter side, though, he’s pleased about the healing effect that the song—which languished in a publisher’s drawer for 16 years before Conlee and Logan heard and subsequently recorded it—is poised to have. “Even if nobody but the cops heard the song, that’d be great, because they need to know that not all of us feel the way the media would have them believe. We do support them, we do respect them. We’re thankful for them.”
Speaking of thankfulness, Conlee does note one other significant change in his life that has, in turn, affected the way he’s applying his musical energies: the revitalization of his faith after a lengthy period opting out of regular church attendance. His concerns for today’s America, he says, led him back to church, where he’s also actively involved in music. Conlee, who says he’s increasingly moving towards gospel music as a mainstay, notes that Classics 2 contains the faith-based songs “Pocketful of Crosses” (“which has to do with giving your testimony wherever you find yourself”) and Vince Gill and Leslie Satcher’s “Bread and Water.”
For Conlee, the move toward gospel is a natural extension of his lifelong desire to serve in a kind of ministerial role. During his sophomore year in high school, Conlee began to sense a call to ministry—one which was soon unexpectedly fulfilled by a part-time funeral home job that turned into a career as a licensed mortician for a time. “I wouldn’t trade that six years for several college degrees,” says Conlee. “I learned more about people there, dealing with them in all kinds of ways, than I could have any other way. When you see people who are upset and in tears, in pain and in mourning,” Conlee says, “I think it just gives you an empathy and a heart for those feelings. And that certainly translates into music in so many different ways. You hope you’re ministering to [people] in some way, whether it’s happy or sad.”