Earl Thomas Conley, one of the most popular and prolific country singers of the 1980s, died here. He was 77.
Carole Scates, his partner for more than 20 years, said the cause was cerebral atrophy.
Mr. Conley had 24 Top 10 country singles in the ’80s, several of which he wrote or co-wrote, including 18 that reached No. 1. Only two artists that decade topped the country charts more times than he did: the vocal group Alabama, which had 27 No. 1 singles, and the singer Ronnie Milsap, who had 23. All but one of Mr. Conley’s No. 1 hits were recorded for RCA, starting with “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong” in 1982.
Many of Mr. Conley’s songs, among them “Holding Her and Loving You” and “Don’t Make It Easy for Me,” both No. 1 hits, plumbed the complexity of romantic relationships. Abounding with sincerity, his rich, smoky baritone was well suited to his material, which appealed primarily to adult audiences, much like the vintage country and soul music of the 1960s and ’70s.
Mr. Conley’s affinity for soul music was evident on many of his recordings, maybe nowhere as much as on “Too Many Times,” a 1986 duet with Anita Pointer of the Grammy Award-winning Pointer Sisters. That record reached No. 2 on the country chart and earned Mr. Conley an invitation, rare for a country artist, to perform the song with Ms. Pointer on the R&B-themed television show “Soul Train.”
“There was such soul in everything he did,” Joe Galante, who was chief executive of RCA Nashville from 1982 to 1990, said in an interview with The Daily Tennessean.
“You always talk about finding something unique,” Mr. Galante continued. “His voice certainly was that.”
Mr. Conley placed an average of two singles a year on the country charts in the 1980s, on his way to becoming an inspiration to future country hitmakers like Randy Travis and Blake Shelton.
By the early ’90s, with the rise of new stars like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, sales of Mr. Conley’s records had dropped, and he received less and less airplay, prompting him to take an extended break from touring and recording. He resurfaced again in 1998, and, though he never achieved the kind of success he had in the ’80s, he was active into this decade.
Earl Thomas Conley, the third of eight children, was born on Oct. 17, 1941, in Portsmouth, Ohio, a small town across the Ohio River from Kentucky, to Ruth (Davis) and Arthur Conley. When his father lost his job with the railroad, Earl, then 14, moved in with one of his older sisters.
He was offered a scholarship to attend art school but opted instead to join the Army, where he first began writing songs and singing in public.
After his discharge, Mr. Conley worked for the railroad and in steel mills while traveling to and from Ohio and Nashville to write songs with the producer Dick Heard. Their song “Smokey Mountain Memories” became a Top 40 country hit for the honky-tonk singer Mel Street in 1975.
The next year Conway Twitty had a No. 1 country hit with Mr. Conley’s “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me.”
In 1981, after an unproductive stint recording for Warner Bros. Records, Mr. Conley had his first No. 1 hit, a song he wrote called “Fire & Smoke,” released on the independent Sunbird label.
In addition to Ms. Scates, Mr. Conley is survived by his brothers, Fred and Steve; his sisters, Ronda Hodges and Becky Miller; a son, Ty, and a daughter, Amy Edmisten, from his marriage to Sandra Smith, which ended in divorce; two younger daughters, Kat Scates and Erinn Scates; and five grandchildren.
A versatile stylist, Mr. Conley was as much at home with the Appalachian music of his childhood as with rock- and soul-inflected arrangements. He recorded tradition-steeped duets with Emmylou Harris (“We Believe in Happy Endings”) and Keith Whitley (“Brotherly Love”).
“My stuff started with bluegrass music,” Mr. Conley once explained in an interview. “That’s what inspired me, the people that came out of those hills in West Virginia and Kentucky. And, of course, Hank Williams Sr. down in Alabama.
“I was born in ’41, and I was raised up on that early stuff,” he went on. “Coming out of those mountains, there’s a different soul and a different feeling and a whole different deal than what it would be like to come from the city.”