Every No. 1 Country Single of the Eighties: Earl Thomas Conley, “Fire and Smoke”

“Fire and Smoke”


Written by Earl Thomas Coney


#1 (1 week)

July 11, 1981

Earl Thomas Conley finally scored a No. 1 single with the self-penned “Fire and Smoke,” kicking off a red hot career that had been a slow burn up until its release.

Conley was in his late thirties by the time he broke through on country radio.  He’d fallen in love with country music while serving in the army, and once his service was complete, he worked at a steel mill in Huntsville, Alabama.   It was there that he met publisher Nelson Larkin, who signed him to an independent record deal and brought him on as a songwriter.

He found his first success writing big hits for other artists, including classics like Conway Twitty’s “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More (Than She Loves Me.)”  A major label deal with Warner Bros. proved largely fruitless, but switching to Sunbird Records, he broke through with his first top ten single in 1980, “Silent Treatment.”  His next single, “Fire and Smoke,” did so well that RCA picked up his contract.

“Fire and Smoke” benefits from being the work of a fully realized artist who had long since established a signature sound and a radio friendly writing style.  It’s one of those country songs that makes you wonder why nobody had ever written it before.  It contrasts the fiery passion of a love affair with the storm of heartache that extinguishes it:

But if there’s fire and smokeOoh, what a rush I got when your love was hotOh, but I couldn’t see that when the flame burned outYou’d leave a cold dark cloud, a raining down on me 

It’s an early highlight from an artist who had a much stronger catalog than he’s been given credit for.  His next three singles produced two top ten entries – “Tell Me Why” and “Heavenly Bodies.” He wouldn’t miss the top five again until 1989.  We’ll see him again in 1982 with the title track and second single from his album, Somewhere Between Right and Wrong.

“Fire and Smoke” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. ETC has always been on of my favorites from the 80s. His songs are catchy and his voice original. This is by far one of his best! Quite possible the artist from the 80s with one of the solidest strings of hits for the decade.

  2. Get ready to see this man a lot. He was a hit-making machine in the 80s.

    This was one of his best songs. Great arrangement, great song, and incredible vocals.

    ETC was pure 80s country yet nothing or no one sounded like him. He was 100% unique and I loved his music. I still listen to him today.

  3. My favorite thing about Blake Shelton is that he seems to be the sole major label artist to carry on the legacy of ETC. A criminally overlooked artist.

  4. Music journalist Rob Patterson described Earl Thomas Conley as the “commercial fulfillment of Kris Kristofferson’s promise.”

    He was so easy to take for granted on country radio because he was never hobbled to a specific style or sound. Wade Jessen points out, “ Few of Earl’s records sounded similar to one another, a claim that few country artists can actually make.”

    I recently picked up a copy of RCA’s “The Essential Earl Thomas Conley” from a used record shop and was reminded of what a run he had at radio in the ’80s. An impressive collection of wonderful performances that are largely forgotten today.

    It was Gary Allan’s cover of Conley’s “What I’d Say” on his 2001 “Alright Guy” album that highlighted what a brilliant, bitter song that was back in 1988 when Conley took it to the top of the charts.

    Conley’s maturity and confidence set him apart. He knew what he wanted to do musically. In hindsight, his artistic sureness reminds me of Lee Roy Parnell’s radio presence in the ’90s.

    Except Conley would go onto have 18 #1 hits. He was a beast,

    Circle this debut #1 hit as an important moment in ’80s country.

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