Con Hunley is old school. His kind of country music comes from a time when R&B and country were sort of side by side. When Con plays piano it's with a debt to Ray Charles more than Floyd Cramer. And when he sings a song it always has elements of gospel and soul. There's also a depth that artists raised on "American Idol" or post-Garth Brooks country never achieve.
And if anyone ever counted him out, they didn't know him very well.
Sitting in the back room at Litton's in Fountain City, Con taps his fingers on his new CD, "Lost & Found: The MCA/Capitol Years." He recently re-recorded the music from a time when the industry had seemed to write him off.
Con was a Knoxville star before he released his first album on Warner Bros. Records in 1979. For the next several years he had a string of Top 20 country hits (including his iconic cover of "Oh Girl") and was nominated for Best New Artist in both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Awards.
In 1982, at the urging of MCA executive Jim Foglesong and his friends the Oak Ridge Boys, Con signed with MCA Records.
"I was beating the bushes trying to find great songs for my first MCA album and everybody was excited," says Con.
Recordings were made and a few singles were released. In 1984, Jimmy Bowen was named head of the Nashville division of MCA.
"He put a halt on all production so he could review everything going on," says Con. "He didn't like what I was doing for some reason or maybe I didn't kiss his ring."
Suddenly, Con was out of a contract, but only until Foglesong was named head of Capitol Nashville and signed Hunley there.
Hunley was finding great songs, including "What In the World Am I Gonna Do About You?" It was released as a single.
"Radio fell in love with it," says Con.
Unbelievably, Bowen moved from MCA to Capitol. Foglesong was out again and Capitol pulled support for Con's single.
"They tried to kill it, but they couldn't," says Con.
With no support, the single never rose into the Top 40, but radio continued to play it for three months. Still, Con was dropped from Capitol in 1986. The following year, Reba McEntire took "What In the World" to No. 1.
"When I left Capitol I was absolutely devastated," says Con. "I kept thinking 'I've got a good track record, a lot of people like my style and my stuff. This is not the end."
When two years passed and Con still hadn't gotten another contract, though, he felt like it was.
"That's all I had done all my life, and I felt like 'It's over.' You question what your purpose is. I thought 'I've got nothing and nowhere to go.'"
It was a dark period that lasted for years. He didn't record. He rarely performed, and he tried to drown his sorrows in "various and sundry liquids."
"I used to plan my day around who I could drink with when," he says.
It wasn't until August 2000, a few months after the death of his mother and a time that he felt he'd hit rock bottom, that Con decided to change his life. He entered a program to overcome his alcoholism, and it worked.
"The sun has seemed to shine a little brighter every day since then," he says. "I haven't had a drink in 11 years. I had a good time and I enjoyed it and I paid dearly for some of the mistakes I made during that time. It's not something I fight. It's just gone."
And friends were ready for his return. Famed East Tennessee songwriter Dean Dillon had songs ready and tried to help Con get a new recording contract. As much as the people who heard the music loved it, they all decided Con was too old to take a chance on.
In 2004, Con decided to record an album without the major labels. He, his brother and some friends started IMMI Records and released "Sweet Memories." It was a critical hit and longtime fans were ecstatic. He also found that he could get airplay on small country radio stations that still played classic country music. And, fans all over the world were finding him on the Internet.
And he isn't taking anything for granted. He keeps up with fans on his website. When fans and friends emailed him birthday wishes recently, he answered all 2,000 of them.
"When I get emails and people tell me 'I had some tough times and your music helped me through it,' that means the world to me."
After lunch, Con and I sit in a car and listened to his take on the classic folk song "Wayfaring Stranger," which will be included on an upcoming gospel album. There is no doubt that the singer feels the song. It's as if he's pouring out his heart in every line.
His voice is even better than it was when he was having hits on the radio.
"I'm enjoying it now more than I ever have," he says. "It's not about spotlights and glamour. It's about heart and soul. I still sing all the old songs in the same key I always did. People tell me I'm singing better now than I ever have. It could be that with all the ups and downs there's more meaning to me."
Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also the host of "All Over the Road" midnight Saturdays to 4 a.m. Sundays on WDVX-FM.
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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