John Conlee has had an amazing career. Since the 70s, Conlee has delivered a consistent string of hits in the country music world—either as a singer, songwriter, or both. Best known for his songs "Lady Lay Down," "Backside of Thirty," and "Got My Heart Set On You," Conlee is an artist who continues to tour and make records for the pure joy and love of his art.
Conlee is set to play the Mars Theatre in Springfield on Sun., August 4, and we chatted with him ahead of the show about his career and the country music industry.
You started playing when you were young, but you didn’t actually start out pursuing music on a career level—you were a mortician, right?
Conlee: That’s right. I was raised on a farm, so I made a living doing that during my growing up years. I went from that to the funeral profession, from there to radio, and from radio to music as a career. Music was always my main hobby growing up. It was the first thing I remember being attracted to as a kid, and it’d still be a hobby had it not turned into a career.
So at what point did you decide to really pursue music?
Conlee: Not until I got to Nashville—my last job in broadcasting, I spent seven of my nine years in broadcasting living in Nashville. Only when I’d been in town here in Nashville for three or four years did I start to write seriously and, in my spare time, pitch those things around town. Then it just evolved into the opportunity to record.
Do you remember the first song you would’ve pitched around?
Conlee: Not really [laughs]. Nothing I pitched got picked up by anybody. They seldom were too interested in the song, but they always wanted to know who was singing. I was doing my own demos—I’d do simple demos with the guitar and my voice in the production room at the radio station. So they always wanted to know who was singing, but nobody was jumping up and down going, “Hey, let’s go into a studio and record” right off the bat.
It’s never over night; that’s my point. It took several years for a breakthrough.
That’s something a lot of people don’t realize: It takes a long time no matter who you are.
Conlee: It does. It’s never overnight. People pop up out of seemingly nowhere, but invariably they’ve been at it in some form or another for years and years to get to that point.
Did you have those periods of frustration when it wasn’t happening, where you questioned whether it was something you still wanted to pursue?
Conlee: Well, I was doing it because I loved it to begin with. That’s what I tell people—if you’ve got to do it because you love it, then you’re not wasting your time whether it ever works out commercially or not. So this would still be my hobby—I’d be singing around the house instead of onstage somewhere, had it not worked out into a career. I just got satisfaction out of doing music.
Sure, there are frustrations along the way when you’re pitching songs. “Rose Colored Glasses” was the fourth [single] release before it hit. The other three didn’t make. But that’s not unusual either, for it to fail before it succeeds.
The industry has changed immensely over even just the last twenty years. Do you like where you’re at in your career now—making records and touring for the love of it, and for your fans?
Conlee: Oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If I were just freshly arrived into Nashville, I probably wouldn’t pursue trying to become an artist in today’s music because I don’t relate to today’s music for the most part.
I terribly miss distinctive, crafted songs with distinctive melodies. I just wouldn’t be interested in doing it the way that people are forced to do it. They’re basically under the control of labels and industry people more than ever. There’s no artistry in that to me.
The funny thing is, I think what you do would be considered “too country” in the industry today. Which is a bizarre thing to say about country music.
Conlee: Oh, I know. Bill Anderson wrote a great song about that a few years back! On the other side of the coin, the reason that it perpetuates itself the way it does is because some of the people doing the new music have an audience and some of them are filling stadiums. And that’s fine! Go for it. But I’m not interested [laughs].