In the music business of this day and age, artists seem to come and go as frequently as the weather changes. The slogan 'one hit wonder' can hardly be used to describe these artists because most newbies are gone before they can even chart a hit.
Country artist John Conlee has withstood the test of time with eight No. 1 hits and 26 songs that became top 20 hits.
"I believe it was several different things," said 63-year-old Conlee. "In a thumbnail, it was the quality of the songs. Songwriters like Harlan Howard, Red Lane and Sonny Throckmorton didn't try to write good songs, they tried to write great songs and I think great songs always hold up."
For Conlee, who was born and raised on a farm in Versailles, Ky., there was no gimmick - just a great voice.
Even though singing was his hobby, Conlee started as a radio disc jockey. "That was really the only reason why I came to Nashville," he said. "But it helped me because I knew about the inside of the business."
After plowing fields and raising farm animals, Conlee loved to sing. It was back in the fourth grade when he knew he was ready to take the stage. "Yeah, that was my first public performance," he said. "I sang 'Love Me Tender' by Elvis and I've been at it ever since."
Conlee's first release came in 1978 with "Back Side of Thirty" on ABC Records but it wasn't until several songs later that the good old farm boy made audiences really take notice. It was "Rose Colored Glasses" that put him on the map to stay, although that single never became a No. 1 hit as it topped off at No. 7.
"I'm not surprised," said Conlee. "When you're inside the business, which was one of the many advantages of coming from inside radio, then you can fully understand. That song bicycled itself across the country and actually started near you in Houston becoming a hit there, then went to region and region. To have a No. 1 record you have to have all regions hitting at the same time."
Conlee explained that if each of his songs could stop at No. 7, he would take that spot on the charts every time.
"The numbers are what people play in the industry," he said. "Fans don't say 'I'm going out to buy a No. 1 record.' They go buy the songs they love and that's the way all of us in the music industry should be looking at it."
Number one on the charts or not, fans all know and love "Lady Lay Down," "Friday Night Blues," "She Can't Say That Anymore," "Miss Emily's Picture," "Busted," "Common Man," "In My Eyes" and "Got My Heart Set on You."
His success was a simple plan. Nothing too elaborate and no bringing in fancy people. Conlee has had the same manager and producer since the beginning of his career.
"I'm proud of that because it's like a family," he said. "It makes life much easier. In fact, my cousin is still my manager and before her passing, my mother was my bookkeeper. We've made it a family affair."
As successful as Conlee has been, it's always been a central facet of his career to take time out for those in need.
"I am a farmer," he said. "I witnessed a demise in the family farm during the mid-1980s and I wanted to do something about it."
Conlee, who still lives on a 32-acre farm outside of Nashville, put on a benefit concert in June of 1985 in Omaha, Neb., "I didn't do so much to raise money but to draw attention to the problem," he recalled.
It was about that time that Willie Nelson had announced plans for Farm Aid so Conlee jumped on board and was involved through the first 10 events.
It was then he discovered the Feed the Children organization. "Larry Jones (founder) was on television talking about feeding the hungry children and helping the farmers so that caught my attention," he said. "We backed into supporting them really by accident."
Conlee explained he was performing in California and during his hit "Busted," as a gag, fans began to bring money to the stage.
"The song is about being broke," he said. "We needed to do something with the money so I thought it would be neat to send it all to Feed the Children and we've kept it going ever since."
So when Conlee breaks into the song "Busted," that's a cue for people to bring their dollar bills to the stage.
"We carry the same red bucket to put it in," he said. "I do have to explain it because some may not know, but we've been able to help a lot of people." According to Conlee, his song has raised nearly $250,000 for Feed the Children.
He still performs about 70 shows per year, outside of performances at The Grand Ole Opry, where he became a member in 1971. "I love what I do," said Conlee. "Music was my first hobby and it's a blessing to make a living doing your hobby. As long as folks want to hear me, I intend on doing it."
Conlee says today's music industry is frustrating so he started his own record label, Rose Colored Records. "A song is put on the back burner now too often," he said. "The business is more concerned about how someone is going to look in the video than what they sound like."
Official John Conlee Website
Click here to purchase John Conlee music