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Earl Conley to Sing, in Flip Side to His Hit-Songwriter Self

Earl Thomas Conley has always led a fairly split-level existence. Before the ragged-voiced singer found success on the country charts, he was dividing his time between a job in an Ohio steel mill and such artistic endeavors as painting, sculpture and pen-and-ink drawings.

Even today--despite a long string of hit singles including “Angel in Disguise,” “Fire and Smoke,” “What She Is (Is a Woman in Love)” and “Too Many Times"--Conley finds that he is still trying to balance the songwriter and the performer sides of personality.

“When you’re a songwriter, you’ve got this tremendous freedom to do what you want, to go in any direction when you’re creating, and you answer to no one,” said Conley, who plays Michael’s Supper Club in Dana Point tonight and Friday.

“But as a performer, you’ve got to make people believe that you’re always happy, every night, regardless of how you feel. You’ve got to do the songs everyone wants to hear and make sure the people go home with smiles on their faces.”

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That task shouldn’t present a serious problem to the son of a Portsmouth, Ohio, railroad worker. Though it took Conley a while to break into country music, once he found a home at RCA Records commercial success came quickly.

In 1983, he released his second album, “Don’t Make It Easy for Me,” which eventually spawned four No. 1 country hits: “Your Love’s on the Line,” “Holding Her and Loving You,” “Angel in Disguise” and the title track. It was the first country album to produce four No. 1 singles.

Yet Conley sounds relatively unfazed when talking about his achievement: “I knew what we had when we’d recorded it. I don’t think I’d be any good at my craft if I couldn’t recognize good songs when I wrote them. I remember Randy Scruggs and I were working on those songs, and we both knew we had something.”

Scruggs, who also produces Conley, got some help from Emory Gordy for Conley’s latest, “The Heart of It All,” an album that finds him in a darker, brooding mood. Musically, it is a bit more austere than previous releases. The themes run a slightly broader spectrum, from drowning one’s sorrows (Danny Kortchmar’s eloquent “You Must Not Be Drinking Enough”) to plain old good-timing (“No Chance, No Dance” and “Finally Friday”).

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The shift in tone is something that Conley, who wrote just one song on the album, is not completely sure about, but he has been heartened by his audience’s response. Not only did “What She Is” reach the top of the country charts, his duet with Emmylou Harris, “We Believe in Happy Endings,” recently made the same climb.

“Emmylou Harris has the most immaculate voice,” Conley said. “When she speaks, it’s like music coming down. I remember being in the studio and saying, ‘I don’t know how this duet’s going to work because your voice is so sweet and crystal clear and mine’s so dirty.’

“She just smiled and said, ‘The contrast is what’s going to make it happen.’ And she was right.”

Conley has a flair for picking interesting duet partners. In addition to his recent pairing with Harris, Conley also teamed with Anita Pointer of the Pointer Sisters for a duet on “Too Many Times.”

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“The song called for something like getting a black man or woman together with someone who was white. It was a great song because of its message,” he said.

Though his records have been spending a lot of time atop the country music charts, Conley said he still makes music primarily for its creative, artistic outlet:

“When you’re writing these songs, you walk down those avenues too. You see the things you’re writing. You imagine it. It’s like the still-lifes that were done by the Impressionists. You can’t help but see all these images. And as long as I can keep that aspect of it alive, I’ll probably continue making music.”

Earl Thomas Conley sings today and Friday at 8 and 10:30 p.m. at Michael’s Supper Club, 24399 Dana Drive, Dana Point. Tickets: $20. Information: (714) 493-8100.

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