Con Hunley: If You Could Read Between the Lines

Nashville City Club, 1978 — From the look of the crowd at the signing party, most of Music Row had come downtown to check out the hot new star from Knoxville. Thirty-five years later, it's what was happening outside the building that stands out in one guest's memory.

"Everybody who was anybody in the music business was there, but the biggest thing I remember was looking out through those glass walls and seeing that airplane pulling a tail banner saying ‘Warner Brothers Welcomes Con Hunley.' It was literally circling downtown Nashville, and they had searchlights on it where people could see it. It was almost surreal, like something out of a Superman movie. They really thought they had the next Elvis," says Hunley's brother, Steve.

"That party cost the company quite a bit of money," recalls legendary music producer Norro Wilson, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and a current nominee to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Wilson, who was running Warner Bros. Records' Nashville operations when Hunley was signed, says nobody worried about the tab for that party. "If anybody ever deserved to be a superstar, it was Con Hunley. I'll get in trouble for saying this, but he's been my favorite guy to work with all these many years. [Wilson's long resume includes names like Charley Pride, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Kenny Chesney, and Shania Twain.]

"He hears what I hear. How good a singer is he? He's as good as it gets."

Yet, despite jaw-dropping good looks and talent formidable enough to win the admiration of established stars and snag an Academy of Country Music Newcomer of the Year nomination, and despite touring with some of the biggest names in the industry and being the first artist invited to sing on Ralph Emery's Nashville Now, he lost deal after deal to lesser talents in big hats. His drinking became the subject of gossip, and he finally came home to Knoxville and went into business with Steve, leaving behind a contingent of fans who wondered whatever became of Con Hunley.

The short answer is that he's fine. He's sober and making music that matters with people he trusts. He's reconnecting with his fans via a thriving Internet-based family music business, and his personal journey is the stuff of classic country songs—and is, in fact, the subject of a moving, as-yet-unreleased autobiographical song called "If You Could Read Between the Lines on This Face."

The former Warner Bros. publicist who was one of the first to believe in him thinks he probably got out in the nick of time.

"He could have gone on and on like he was and he probably would've been singing with Elvis by now," says Bonnie Taggert, who once stopped New York City traffic at the Holland Tunnel so Hunley could be photographed for an official promotional shot.

"Instead, he stopped drinking, took control of his life, and he's still loved and still has an incredible life and I think his silver hair is gorgeous."

***

Conard Logan Hunley was the firstborn child of Priscilla Clodell Brewer and William Kenneth Hunley, April 9, 1945. Con was named for his grandfathers—Milburn Conard Brewer, a Church of God minister, and Logan Hunley, a farmer whose family was forced off their Union County land by the rising waters of Norris Lake. Like a lot of displaced Union Countians, Kenneth went to work at Standard Knitting Mill, the biggest textile mill in Knoxville, which employed more than 4,000 people at its height. He made extra money painting houses at night, sometimes working 16-hour days. Clodell (known as "Dell") worked at the Palm Beach Mill on Baxter Avenue. They believed in Jesus, hard work, family, and music. Alcohol was not on the list.

Con's siblings were Beth, Steve, Tim, Ruthie, and Kenny. They grew up attending the Church of God of the Union Assembly in Luttrell and lived in a rowdy, close-knit "Our Gang" kind of neighborhood on Beverly Road. Nobody had much money, but there was always music and mischief and an abundance of tough love.

Hunley can't remember not working. His first job was selling placards with slogans written on them in glitter and glue.

"I went door to door selling mottos," he says. "Looking back, I think people bought those because they felt sorry for me."

When he got older, he put up hay and milked cows. In high school, he washed cars and changed tires at two East Knoxville service stations. After that, he donned a white shirt and a bow tie to work at the Whiteway in Fountain City.

The Hunley kids attended Ritta Elementary School, and Con went on to Central High School, where he struggled to conquer his shyness.

"I tried to do well in school and I was eager to learn," he says. "I was kind of a backward, shy guy.... People who knew me then are always saying, ‘You're the last person I expected to be an entertainer.' I wasn't necessarily introverted, but outside my circle of friends, I was very bashful. Making friends was always my main concern. That was very important to me and over the years it's remained important to me. I've always really valued my friends."

He learned to play the guitar by imitating the distinctive style of Chet Atkins, whom he idolized. Later, when his parents bought his sister Beth a piano, he started teaching himself to play like his other idol, Ray Charles. At Central, he'd slip into the school auditorium at lunchtime to practice "What'd I Say" licks on a grand piano that stood on the stage, surrounded by heavy velvet drapes.

"There was one time I had snuck in there and was playing and singing, and when I finished, I heard this applause from behind the curtain. It scared me to death and I just took off running."

He saw the inside of a jail after a football game at Powell High School when he and his friends decided to show their colors at the traditional Powell hangout, Malcolm's Dairyland. A fracas ensued and Dell Hunley got a call to come get him out of jail.

"I was going to jail for the cause," he says. "I had my check from the Whiteway, but they wanted 10 percent of my check to cash it, and I wasn't going to do that. So I called my mother. I'm big-dogging it out of there, and I'll never forget her saying, ‘I ought to wring your jaws,' right in front of all those people."

He graduated in 1963, and followed his dad to Standard Knitting Mill. The following year, he got his first professional music gig playing with a band at the Eagles Club, the service fraternity downtown. The war in Vietnam was heating up, and when he joined the Air Force in 1965, Standard had to hire two people to replace him. He learned aircraft mechanics in the service, playing and singing with local bands wherever he was stationed. He was discharged in 1968 and returned to Knoxville hoping to connect with the hometown music scene.

***

Ernestine Purkey had a stupendous bouffant hairdo and a keen business mind. Divorced, with two boys to raise, she'd worked as a waitress in a couple of diners before she took over ownership of the Corner Lounge on North Central Street in 1958 after her boyfriend, a gambler named Billy Thompson, got disgusted with the demands of running an inner-city bar and tossed her the keys. She ran a tight ship and was an immediate success.

"One day I was behind the bar taking inventory—that's the secret, you know; if you can't keep up with your inventory, they'll steal you blind. A boy named Jerry Beeler came in and said his friend Con Hunley had just come back from the service and would I let him play the piano. I said, ‘If he can play—I don't want to hear no damn banging.'

"Con was bashful, but he started playing and got my attention. There was a sound system and we'd slip around and turn it on. When he started singing, he'd draw a crowd."

Hunley sang himself into a regular Thursday night gig, playing for beer and tips. Purkey found a way of getting him past his stage fright.

"Con was so damn bashful that you had to get him drunk to sing, so I'd send up the street for a bottle and give him drinks to get him started," she says.

Next she discovered that she was going to have another problem to contend with—women.

"I had to protect him from them," Purkey says. "They'd just maul him. It got to where I had to hire people to watch everything else so I could watch over Con. I remember some woman taking up the whole couch next to the piano bar, drinking liquor straight out of the jigger. She kept scooting down the couch, working her way to where Con was. Next thing we knew, she was sitting behind the piano next to him. Then she grabbed him. Somebody said, ‘Get that crazy bitch out from behind there, Ernie!' and I motioned for her to come out. She wouldn't, so I had to grab her by the hair of the head and forcibly put her out into the street. She fought me. They were hollering, ‘Get her, Ernie!'"

During that time, the late Zane Daniel, one of Knoxville's most successful attorneys and a legendary party animal, discovered the Corner.

"Zane started coming every Thursday night and was almost as popular as Con was," Purkey says. "I'd get my hair done on Thursday afternoon, change clothes, and be back there and the phone would ring. ‘Is Con going to be there tonight?' The crowds got so big sometimes we couldn't let people in the door."

Pretty soon, she put a sign outside proclaiming the Corner the "Home of Con Hunley."

One of the people who almost didn't get in was C.H. Butcher—the future convicted bank swindler and younger brother to fellow swindler Jake—who caused a scene and started lecturing Ernie about her clientele.

"C.H. was belligerent," she says. "He wasn't like Jake, the gentleman. He said I ought to start a club, and not just let just a bunch of riffraff in here. Finally I had to make room for him, but I told him, ‘C.H., I don't have riffraff and I don't tell you how to run your bank, so you don't tell me how to run my business.'"

In 1975, stockbroker and Con Hunley fan Sam Kirkpatrick started Prairie Dust Records and took Hunley to Nashville's Studio B for a session with some of Nashville's best musicians. Hunley was Prairie Dust's only artist.

Bobby Denton, general manager of WIVK radio, became a Corner Lounge patron and a close friend.

"We were both pretty wild back then, and Con was one good-looking son of a gun," Denton says. "He had women around him all the time and he was already a pretty big star. He worked big concerts, and I thought, ‘Shit, he can sing better than most of them.'"

In 1978, Denton took Hunley to the Acuff-Rose Publishing Company Golf Tournament at Henry Horton State Park, a two-day event attended by a host of Music Row A-listers, including Chet Atkins and Vince Gill. That first night there was a "guitar pull" jam session and Denton made sure that somebody passed the guitar to Hunley.

"I'm sitting in the floor, just in awe of these people," Hunley says. "When he called my name, my heart rate went to 160. They handed me a guitar—it might have been Chet's catgut guitar—and I had a lot more vibrato that night than I normally do."

Taggert was at the guitar pull representing Warner Bros., and she became an instant fan.

"I was lucky enough to hear him sing that night, and he was awesome—so good-looking and so kind and so sweet that I just felt like he would be a great addition to the roster at Warner Brothers," Taggert says. "So I went back to the office and told Norro Wilson, and that Thursday we went up to the Corner Lounge."

That's all it took to hook Wilson, too.

***

By the end of the next week, Hunley had offers from five labels, including one from RCA delivered via telephone by Chet Atkins, who reached him at the Village Barn where he was playing with a band called Marvin Russell and the Rhythm Masters. But Atkins was too late. Taggert was already chartering a plane to Knoxville. She loaded up Wilson and a group of top international executives and headed for the Village Barn.

"In hindsight, I might have been better off with RCA, because they had a better background in country music," Hunley says. "I'm a country boy fresh out from under the rock and I had all this stuff coming at me at the same time. I'm thinking, this is what I've been looking for all my life. They were throwing a lot of money at the country division, and they threw a lot of money at me. You're talking about a broke East Tennessee boy, and all of a sudden there's a big contract to buy equipment and whatever I needed to go on the road. It was a really sweet dance there, in the beginning. I felt they wanted me more, appreciated what I was doing. I felt like she was the one."

But there was a serious roadblock in the way—he didn't know how to break the news to Ernie.

"One Thursday night Zane called me outside and told me, ‘Next break you take, I want to talk to you about something,'" Purkey says. "The smoke inside was hard on your lungs, and on his break, Con would generally be off somewhere with some gal. It gave Zane a chance to talk to me. He said, ‘Con has a recording contract on my desk. It's been laying there all week and he won't sign it unless you tell him to. He doesn't want to leave you.'"

"I said, ‘He's got to.' Zane said, ‘Ernie, this is the break of a lifetime. Warner Brothers isn't going to wait for Con Hunley.'"

"The next break, I said, ‘Con, I want you to go up there and sign that damn contract.' He said, ‘What will you do?' I said, ‘I was here before you ever got here.' But it was breaking my heart to say that. For a long time after that, he'd try and make it back to the Corner every Thursday. He'd walk in and get behind the bar where the girls couldn't maul him. And they did, believe me."

Purkey found a serviceable replacement very quickly. The Steppe Brothers filled the Thursday night vacancy and she continued to pack in the customers until her retirement in 1989.

***

Unfortunately for Hunley, when he arrived on the scene, country music was in the beginning stages of what his brother Steve calls a paradigm shift.

"It was timing—Con got caught in a sea change happening in the music business," he says. "The seas were calm and here comes a Category 5 hurricane. The business was transforming from an old-style country business model to a rock business model—bigger venues, bigger audiences, big arena acts. Hat acts. Nashville was taking on the trappings of rock and moving away from the balladeers, the country crooners. He got caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. It had a profound effect on as many as 50 acts. It wasn't just Con that got washed away. Finally, he said, ‘I've had enough. I'm going home.'"

As if the industry-wide changes weren't difficult enough, Warner Bros. was undergoing internal management issues. Bonnie Taggert says a lot of people got hurt.

"It wasn't Con's fault," says Taggert, who was close to Warner Bros. Nashville chief Jim Fogelsong. "It was politics at the record labels. There was a big shakeup at Warner Brothers. Jim Fogelsong was out and Jimmy Bowen came in and fired us all. Con ended up at Capitol and by that time I was at Capitol, too. Jim Fogelsong was the president of Capitol and Con was so on the verge of hitting it big. I was going to get a promotion to vice president, but they brought Jimmy Bowen in and he fired everybody again. I was fired by Jimmy Bowen twice. And Con lost his deal."

Hunley recorded five albums with Warner Bros.—No Limit, I Don't Want to Lose You, Ask Any Woman, and Oh, Girl—plus a string of singles, including "Weekend Friend," which charted at #13 and "Oh, Girl," a cover of the Chi-Lites song that made it to #12. He toured with big-name acts including Alabama, Larry Gatlin, George Jones, and Tammy Wynette. About the time that his Warner Bros. contract was running out in 1982, he was touring with the Oak Ridge Boys, who sang back-up harmonies on "Oh, Girl" and had become close personal friends. They encouraged him to come over to MCA, where Jim Fogelsong had also landed.

"I started looking for songs for my first project and the head of MCA Nashville, Jim Fogelsong, was let go and the new guy that came in chose not to retain me," Hunley says. "Jim went to Capitol Records and took me with him. I started working on a project and lo and behold, the same thing happened at Capitol that happened at MCA. I'd be looking at a song and the people in A&R would say, ‘I don't hear you doing that song.' This went on for just a little bit, and next thing you know, there were other artists they'd signed who were recording songs I'd brought in myself.

He finally found a song called "What Am I Going to Do About You" that had real potential, but says Bowen's staff had little interest in promoting it.

"It took them a long time to kill it. Reba McEntire was with the label at the time, and several months later, she wound up recording it and it became a monster hit."

That's when he stopped trying.

"I needed the time to rejuvenate, re-examine, and get emotionally reinvested in my craft," he says. "Six months turned into a year, a year turned into five, and five years turned into a lifetime. I went into a dark period of self-doubt. Was it me? Was it the business? I continued to play gigs off the strength of the records I'd had until that point—but they became fewer and fewer and pretty soon there wasn't a lot of demand for Con Hunley."

***

Hunley went into the dry cleaning business with Steve, and had little involvement with music, beyond his Golden Gloves concerts and a standing New Year's Eve gig in Pigeon Forge. In 1996, he got a boost when President Bill Clinton invited him to perform for Hillary Clinton's birthday party at the White House. Later that year, Norro Wilson was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and asked Hunley to sing Wilson's hit single, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," at the banquet.

Dell Hunley died in December 1999, while Con was working on what would become his comeback album, Sweet Memories. During that time, he was arrested for DUI and found himself in the drunk tank being mocked by Knox County deputies singing "Oh, Girl" on the intercom. He had hit rock bottom.

"Here's this washed-up local boy drowning in his own misery—it really made me take stock," he says. "I realized that a lot of the people I was running around with were caught up in knowing Con Hunley—‘You're not going to believe where we went, what we did'—and pretty soon it became something bigger than a social evening. I'd started planning my days around who I was going to drink with and where I would go after that. I decided I needed help. I'm thankful every day that I did. That's when things started to turn around. I was trying to reconcile my mother's death and make peace with my music, and I determined I wasn't going to die with my music."

Hunley's father died in 2004, and he believed in Con's talent to the end of his life, urging him to "lay in there" and not give up. And, with some help from friends and family, he didn't.

"He did the Sweet Memories project pretty much on his own," Steve says. "Norro produced it and shopped it around, but the business had moved on—it was still the hat acts. I finally said, ‘Well, hell, why don't we do it ourselves?'"

Steve, who had earned a business and marketing degree at the University of Tennessee and is an experienced entrepreneur, came up with a business plan and the brothers started IMMI—Independent Music Marketing Inc.

Their sister Ruthie Akers came on board to run the office and sing in the band. Her husband, Burton Akers, a gifted musician, arranges the music. Brothers Tim (until his death in 2009) and Kenny sang backup. Their friend Lisa Starbuck is president of IMMI and handles the Internet and social media—just managing Hunley's Facebook pages, which have drawn more than 18,000 friends and fans, is almost a full-time job.

And the voice is better than ever. Sweet Memories was well-received and got rack space from major retailers. Colleagues like Vince Gill, Kenny Chesney, and Bill Anderson gave him rave reviews. Singer Blake Shelton put Con Hunley on his list of the top 10 country voices.

Meanwhile, Hunley and his wife Karen have been married for 29 years and have a daughter, Brittany, 27, who lives in South Carolina and works for a national advertising agency. Brittany has an undergraduate degree from UT and a master's from Clemson, and Hunley is very proud of her.

"She's an independent girl. She don't take any crap and I admire that. She's really good at what she does."

Karen has her own career and is not involved in the music business. "She doesn't pay any attention to it at all," Hunley says. "It's part and parcel of the other Con."

All in all, the lifelong Knoxvillian says he's content.

"I like to go to the IGA and the Pilot and Weigel's and all these places, and if somebody knows me, I talk to them and if they don't, that's fine with me, too. I guess it'd be different if I was a Keith Urban or a Kenny Chesney, but it's kind of nice that I can do what I do and be who I am—play golf with my buddies and be around my friends and just be Con, the good old boy from Beverly Road and Ritta school, and not Con the singer."

Hunley has another calling that he doesn't talk about much—his work in the recovery community. But Bobby Denton does.

"We're both members of AA. He got straight before I did, and Con really helped me. When he got his 10th-anniversary chip, I put it on him. He has done very, very well and is a role model for a lot of people."

Ernie Purkey says Hunley is the best friend she ever had, and that she's put him in her will. They still go out to dinner occasionally, and his sobriety doesn't get in the way of having a good time.

"He'll tell me, ‘You go ahead and have a drink. It won't bother me,'" she says. "He does not drink anything but black coffee, period. He's never backslid."

Not long ago, Con and Ernie were out, and stopped to peer into the windows of the old Corner Lounge, most recently a bookstore in the same building now occupied by Magpie's Bakery. But these days, Hunley doesn't worry much about what's past.

"In the end, it's pretty simple. I'm not wealthy, but I can make music, which is my life and my joy. Just my heart talking to yours."

Ed. Note: Con Hunley made a recording of "Tennessee," written by Betty Bean's late brother, John Bean. It was adopted by the Senate as a state song in 2011.