Locals who believe mainstream country music has lost its soul need look no further for an example than the story of legendary East Tennessee crooner and "Smoky Mountain blue-eyed darlin' " Con Hunley. Hunley's rise to superstardom may have been truncated in the '80s after a brush with the corporate politics that fuel the Nashville machine, but it hasn't deterred him from his love of performing true, meaningful country music. After a two-decades-long hiatus, Hunley has bypassed the once-necessary major label backing to return to his loyal followers, releasing four albums in since 2004.
Hunley looks a bit like Dos Equis' so-called "most interesting man in the world," and is probably more deserving of such a title. After a stint in the Air Force, he began developing his craft through early performances at The Corner Lounge, where he was discovered, and soon took his shot at Nashville. Having built a status throughout the industry with releases from Warner Bros., Hunley signed to MCA Records in 1982. Once dropped from the label's roll by new MCA president Jimmy Bowen, Hunley moved on to sign with Capitol Records, which coincidentally was Bowen's next stop as well. Hunley was again pushed out to allow room for Bowen's familiars.
Although Hunley's credits include numerous chart-climbing hits and a performance at the White House during the Clinton administration, the meteoric rise many felt was his destiny was cut short. While it is difficult to imagine not being somewhat embittered by his experience, the upbeat Hunley is happy to be where he is now.
"I think (superstardom) was more important to other people than it was to me," says Hunley. "It never really was about the glitter and the glamor and the spotlight and all that stuff. For me, it was always about the music, and I always wanted to do really good songs people could relate to and songs that meant something to me. I was lucky enough to make some music; I never was a superstar, and I think a lot of people thought I was going to. Had that come along, it would have been nice, but it's not something I lose a lot of sleep over."
With a love for music instilled by his family at an early age, Hunley has continued to offer new material to his fans. Following the loss of his mother, Hunley has included a gospel song on each of his albums as a tribute. After the acclaim and encouragement of friends and fans, he put out a full gospel album in 2012. The well-received album "Wayfarin' Stranger" was his fourth release on IMMI Records.
While much of Hunley's success came from the rearrangement and performance of existing songs, his next album promises to feature more of his original writing. Given his life experience and reputation for performing from the heart, Hunley's self-composed material should prove to be his most moving. Working with recent Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Kim Williams, the next album promises to be a return to form.
"It's a little tough for me, having been a country-oriented singer for all these years, to jump into another genre," says Hunley of his recent gospel work. "There's always a circle involved in any genre, label or promotion deal, but it's been pretty widely accepted. Everyone that's heard it seems to like it.
"Initially when I got my first contract, I'd written a song called 'Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,'" continues Hunley of his infrequent songwriting. "That really opened the door for me. ... From that time on, I didn't do a lot of writing. For me to write, I had to get away from everything. After we did our first album with Warner Bros., I was on the road constantly, and it just wasn't conducive to me writing. But of late, I've been writing quite a bit, or quite a bit for me. I've written some songs on my later CDs, and the next one coming up has a couple of songs I wrote.
Frequently performing for charity events, Hunley is always eager to give back to the East Tennessee community that has supported and encouraged him throughout the years. For the third Waynestock installment, kicking off on Feb. 1, Hunley will join Mic Harrison and the High Score for a hand-picked set of Hunley's higher-octane favorites.
"We're going to do some songs I don't get to do live very much," Hunley says. "We're going to do some album cuts Mic and the guys picked out that I haven't done in a long time, kind of a throwback to some up-tempo stuff. I said I'd do whatever (they) picked out. ... They're fired up about it, and so am I. I really enjoy those guys, Mic and the band. He's such a great songwriter. I'm looking forward to it; we're going to have a heck of a time."
While the previous two Waynestocks were reactions to the tragic passings of Andrew Bledsoe and Phil Pollard, the event has been propelled forward by the resulting sense of community it has created. This year's event will benefit Knoxville's Community School for the Arts.
When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 1-2
Where: Relix Variety Theatre, 1208 N. Central
Admission: $5 nightly
Friday, Feb. 1
7 p.m. Black Atticus
8 p.m. Kevin Abernathy
9 p.m. Con Hunley with Mic Harrison & The High Score
10 p.m. The Rockwells
11 p.m. The Mutations
midnight Yak Strangler
Saturday, Feb. 2
7 p.m. Kukuly & the Gypsy Fuego
8 p.m. Dor L’ Dor
9 p.m. Guy Marshall
10 p.m. Sam Quinn
11 p.m. Johnny Astro & the Big Bang
12 p.m. Grand finale with Knoxville music greats and Waynestock performers past and present
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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