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Earl Thomas Conley is a satisfied man

By BOB LOWRY

AUSTIN, Texas -- Earl Thomas Conley, a former steelworker raised on Hank Williams' music, says some young artists who are trying to define traditional country music these days don't know what they're talking about.

But Conley, who attained stardom seven years ago with his No. 1 single 'Fire and Smoke,' is satisfied with his label as a contemporary country artist, and says traditional country music is 'just another passing phase.'

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'I don't think that they (traditionalists) are doing anything that ain't been done before,' he says. 'Dwight (Yoakam), he'll scream (at) some people, 'That ain't country.'

'Hell, he's only 20-something. He don't know what country is his own self. I was raised up in '41. I was alive when Hank Williams was alive, was happening.'

Conley, 46, says the current music being made by so-called purists, such as Randy Travis, George Strait and Yoakam, is the same music he played during the early 1970s while struggling at clubs in Huntsville, Ala.

'I can sit right there and sing, 'I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You' right along with the rest of them,' he says. 'But that's not creative.'

Conley says he likes hard-core country, but he personally 'enjoys coming up with something new all the time.'

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'You change and so does life, so you might as well change with it,' he says. 'I've cried an awful lot in my life. Even though some of my songs have a sad punch line, there's something in my music that gives it hope.'

While he admires the new artists and has some back-to-basics country on his new album -- including a duet with Emmylou Harris -- Conley says he's pleased with his station in country music.

'I like where I'm at,' he says. 'We've never cut (a record) to try to cross over (to pop) or anything. We've always cut in a creative way and try to keep ourselves from getting bored.

'Some of these guys ... raising hell with everybody because, you know that ain't country music, well what is country music? You know, everybody's got television. The world has changed.'

Conley, whose new album 'The Heart of It All' goes on sale May 3, says the swing toward traditional country is another fad that will pass.

'Every time it gets too far in one extreme, it will come back to this for security, I guess,' he said.

Conley, who lives with his wife Sandra on a 62-acre farm in Franklin, Tenn., insists the only new country artist who excites him is K.T. Oslin, although he is a big fan of Bruce Springsteen.

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'I'm really into K.T. Oslin and what she's doing,' he said. 'I think she's making a statement for herself, and I believe her. And that's what it's all about.'

Even though country music may be in a rut, Conley says the state of the art is healthy.

'Country music is going to be here forever,' he says. 'It's part of our society. It's part of our lives. It's just a feeling and emotion that's necessary for people.'

Growing up poor in Portsmouth, Ohio, Conley says he was influenced by Merle Haggard, George Jones, Williams and his father.

Conley quit his job at an Ohio steel mill in 1970 and moved to Huntsville, writing and working the local clubs, so he could be closer to Nashville.

In 1974, he wrote 'Smokey Mountain Memories,' moved to Nashville, toured with Charlie Pride and Hank Williams Jr., and followed up with a bundle of hits, including 'Silent Treatment' and 'Holding Her and Loving You.'

Despite his success, Conley has never won a major country music award.

Asked if the awards mean anything, he said, 'Yeah, they do because the people believe it and that's who you're playing to. They believe that's the way it is, and it ain't really the way it is, necessarily.'

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Conley said is still miffed about being passed over for an award one year, but would only say, 'I've had my feelings hurt a few times. I'll never forget it. There are a lot of things that don't seem fair and a lot of things that damn sure ain't fair when it comes to stuff like that.'

But Conley says an avalanche of awards early in an artist's career might not keep them hungry.

'I'm going to hang in there and have really good music,' he says. 'I still feel like I'm growing and still gathering my audience.'

When he was growing up in southern Ohio, Conley said his dream 'was to be big at this.'

'I want to leave this world and leave a statement behind, some kind of a statement that says something that was creative and productive,' he said. 'That was all you'd hear back in the hills, 'That ole boy down the road, he went off to Nashville and made something of himself.''

Conley says he hopes earn enough money in the next 10 years to allow him to 'do whatever I want to,' including puttering around in his garden and maybe writing books and screenplays.

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'I think maybe I might write me a book or two,' he says. 'I've got something to say about all this.'

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