John Conlee: An Appreciation
When country music, or any genre for that matter, is a passion of your’s, it’s easy to forget that many artists past and present fly under the radar of and don’t receive the attention they often deserve. John Conlee, a star in the 1970s and 1980s and still a constant presence at the Grand Ole Opry, has a rich legacy to call his own and deserves plenty of plaudits.
John Conlee sings with perhaps one of the most recognizable voices in country music. He seems to accentuate certain words and phrases, particularly in his live performances, in an understated way and lets the power of his voice carry the song.
And it truly is the song that John Conlee does best. He sings songs with simple ideas but with vivid imagery. Take “Common Man” for instance. He took it to number one in 1983 by singing it in a way the listener could imagine his or her grandpa saying the same thing.
John Conlee became a star by essentially being a common man. He was, and is, a star of the people. You could walk into a Cracker Barrel and find yourself striking up a conversation with him, and that’s what country music needs. The big and iconic stars who seem larger than life are needed, of course, but there’s something to be said for the hundreds of other artists who have been heard on country radio over the years. The artists with a couple number one hits. The artists who may never headline arenas but sell-out smaller venues for over two decades. Country music was built on the backs of those kinds of artists.
Conlee’s songwriting deserves praise as well. Though not a prolific songwriter, his output is quite strong. Nowhere is this more evident than on his 1978 debut album Rose Colored Glasses. Not only is it one of the greatest debut albums in country music history, it’s also one of the finest and most consistent country records of all-time. We’ll get to the title track in a moment, but I wanted to first mention a song that warrants attention. “Backside of Thirty” is a solo composition from Conlee, and it really set the stage for the type of music he would write and record throughout his career. It’s a vivid vignette of a man in his thirties after everything’s gone wrong. The opening stanza let’s the listener know what’s to come with the rest of the song:
Making money at thirty with a wife and a son
Then a short five years later it all comes undone
She’s gone back to mama with the boy by her side
Now I’m wine drunk and running with them on my mind
That’s a very specific way to open a song. Conlee’s writing has an ability to quickly get to the point without leaving the listener behind. Of course, most casual listeners would agree with that portrayal because of his most well-know song- “Rose Colored Glasses.”
“Rose Colored Glasses,” co-written with George Baber, reached number five on the charts and is a vital song in understanding the honky-tonk vein of country music. The influence is Haggard-esque, and the song was a pre-cursor to the neo-traditionalist movement later championed by Randy Travis, George Strait, and Alan Jackson.
The song became Conlee’s signature hit, and Conlee still pulls out rose-tinted glasses when performing the song today.
If you’re not familiar with John Conlee, I would recommend starting with his debut record and then listening to his live album from Billy Bob’s. The live album is full of Conlee’s banter and stories behind some of his songs. It’s thanks to artists like Conlee that the genre is still thriving today.