An old friend is returning to the Lakeway Area to perform some of his old hits.
Walters State Community College presents “An Evening with Con Hunley In Concert” to benefit the Walters State Foundation on Feb. 22 in the R. Jack Fishman Library on the Morristown Campus.
Over a five-decade music career on Warner Bros. MCA and Capitol Records, Hunley has recorded 20 charting singles, including “Weekend Friend,” “No Relief In Sight” and his 1982 cover of the Chi-Lites’ R&B classic, “Oh Girl.”
Born and raised in Knoxville, Hunley was influenced by Ray Charles and Chet Atkins, and got his start playing with local bands as a teenager before enlisting in the Air Force, where he continued to perform.
After his discharge, Hunley returned to Knoxville, and continued to play there and throughout East Tennessee – including the Lakeway Area.
Even though it’s been a long time since he has performed in Morristown, he still has many friends in East Tennessee – and an unforgettable experience that shaped his career.
“When I first started playing, one of the first bands I played in was Lynn Huffaher and the Lina-aires,” Hunley said. “I think we made about $15 bucks a night.
“That’s my first memory of playing in Morristown – and that was in the 60s.”
In 1982, Hunley went into the studio to record the album “Oh Girl,” with the title track as a cover of the 1971 R&B classic from the Chi-Lites. Producer Steve Dorff, the father of actor Stephen Dorff, came up with the idea to do the song. Hunley knew the song well, and though it was one of his favorites, he wasn’t sure it would translate into a country song.
After a little cajoling and trying out a few more songs, Hunley and Dorff, decided to release “Oh Girl,” and it became the hit Hunley never thought it could be. He even received congratulations from Eugene Record, the late frontman of the Chi-Lites, who wrote the song.
“I never thought it would become the hit it would become,” Hunley said. “(Record) left me the sweetest note.
“I made some money off (the song), and so did he.”
After recording in the mid-1980s for the last time for Capitol Records, Hunley went on a nearly two-decade hiatus before returning in 2004 with IMMI Records and reteamed with Grammy-winning producer Norro Wilson, who produced his early hits with Warner Brothers, on “Sweet Memories.” The album was named one of the top albums of that year by CMT.com.
Hunley has had the pleasure of playing alongside his childhood heroes, George Jones, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis and Atkins during his career. He was able to witness first-hand the legendary thumb-style guitar-picking style that made Atkins famous during his lifetime.
Hunley has also toured with all-time acts such as Alabama and the Gatlin Brothers, who he credits with boosting his career. He also said touring with the Oak Ridge Boys was an experience that made him a better musician.
“The Oak Ridge Boys took me on tour with them for about a year, and treated me like a brother, and they helped me with my career,” he said. “I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and performing with a lot of my musical heroes – and that’s meant a lot to me.”
Though Hunley has never played at WSCC before, his longtime friend and golf partner, David Hayes - who is also president of the Walters State Foundation – asked him if he wanted to play a benefit for the foundation, which is a non-profit, (501)(c)(3) organization created to support educational scholarship, research and development.
“I told him I was delighted to do it,” Hunley said. “I have a lot of fans (in the Lakeway Area), and I look forward to doing it.”
Hunley hosts an annual celebrity golf tournament in Knoxville which has raised over a million dollars to help underprivileged children, so giving back to the community is not foreign to him. The Fishman Library was chosen to host the concert because Hunley felt a smaller venue puts him and his fans closer to each other.
“We checked out the venues, and we chose the library because it’s a little more intimate and closer to the audience,” he said. “And the fact it’s to benefit the foundation makes it more meaningful to me.”
When asked about comparisons between today’s country music and the country music he grew up listening to and playing, Hunley said he didn’t like being critical or comparative of the forms, saying one must change or be left behind.
“I still love the old country. It’s difficult to say what (the new country music is),” he said. “Some say it’s Southern Rock, some say it’s pop, some say it’s even rap, but for my tastes, it’s the old school.”
An oft-quoted phrase used to describe country music by purists is “three chords and the truth,” coined by songwriter Harlan Howard in the 1950s. While it remains to be seen what the future holds for the genre, Hunley said the same could be said of any form of music.
“My choice of (country music) is more blues-flavored,” he said. “I can understand what they’re saying and feeling though.”
As for Hunley’s own future, at 74 years of age, he expects to live even longer – and is even working on another project, saying he and his producers are about “75% finished” with the project, which has elements of country, blues and R&B.
He said he is nowhere near finished with music – and he’s sure music is nowhere finished with him either.
“As long as I am able to sing (my songs) in the same keys I’ve sang them for 50 years, I’ll sing them,” he said. “I’m far from ready to retire.
“As long as people want to hear me, I’ll keep singing on.”
Tickets are $30, $40 and $50. To purchase tickets, visit www.ws.edu/conhunley or call the college advancement office at 423-585-2629.
The doors of the library will open at 5:30 p.m. for seating. High Lonesome Senate, the college’s bluegrass band, will open the show at 6:30 p.m., with Hunley taking the stage at 7 p.m.
Sponsors of the event are Rusty Wallace Ford, Rusty Wallace Toyota, The Terry Law Firm, Citizens National Bank and GFL Environmental Inc. Media sponsors are Citizen Tribune, Merle FM, Knox Focus and WVLT.