Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Earl Thomas Conley, “That Was a Close One”

“That Was a Close One”

Earl Thomas Conley

Written by Robert Byrne


#1 (1 week)

July 4, 1987

This isn’t a great record, but it could’ve been one.

“That Was a Close One” gets it right lyrically, and Conley does his best to deliver the emotional avoidance that the storyline demands.  But he’s got a tough enemy to overcome, and it’s the atrocious production.

The pacing is a meandering mess, and the desperate sadness of the lyric gets completely lost. It’s not quite country and not quite adult contemporary, and sounds incomplete because it can’t decide on one approach and stick to it.

But it’s an incredible song, and I’d love to hear it reimagined with a roots-oriented production.  Conley switches to Emory Gordy Jr. on his next studio album, and Gordy was brilliant with sophisticated songs like this during his run with Patty Loveless in the nineties.

“That Was a Close One” gets a B.

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  1. I agree about the production. I would like this song more with more straight-forward country production. In fact, I regret that ETC either didn’t want to recast some of his hits with a more traditional backing (or perhaps did not have the opportunity).

    Although I do not count Conley among my absolute favorites, I do have most of his albums

  2. I believe I read somewhere that the ‘whew’ heard in the song was not ETC. His producer put it in.

    I love this song but I liked just about every song he put out during the 80s. I like the arrangement and it felt current at the time of its release IMO.

  3. I found the production satisfying enough. I suppose it’s true that the arrangement kind of sits there, but it seems consistent enough with most of ETC’s other hits, propelled by the strong lyrics rather than trying to be sonically overwhelming. Perhaps I’m also taken by the nostalgia of it, compartmentalizing ETC’s music as part of the “80s sound” which just wouldn’t have the same impact for me if loaded with fiddles or steel guitars. Either way, this is the kind of song I sleepwalked through during its time on the radio, but like so many of Conley’s other hits, the lyrics hit me harder as an adult.

    Grade: B

  4. I think the production serves the “Whew” aspect of the story the narrator is telling us and captures the meandering madness of the narrator’s lies to himself.

    The whispering intensity of his vocals are captivating. This guy is having a vaguely insane, self-confirming conversation with absolutely no one else at all but himself, certainly none of his close ones. The barely there production is a blurry backdrop to what he has to say.

    This is the sound of the narrator catching his breath after having run away again from the love that both terrifies and taunts him.

    He sounds dazed reflecting on having managed to once again protect his purported precious heart and pride. It is hard to know if he is relieved or repulsed by his predictability.

    Obviously, from the lists of similar scenarios that make up his heart’s chronology in the lyrics, he is constantly letting down his guard and seldom playing it cool.

    Conley gave voice to the lies we tell ourselves as well as any artist this decade.

    This song is brilliant.

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