Believing in song
Singer/songwriter Jason Conley’s rocky road from West Virginia to Chico
“And though the bad times are lost, I still miss your pretty fall. Like those leaves, I, too, can change.”
—from Jason Conley’s “Chapmanville”
“I couldn’t contain myself when I was writing it,” drawled singer-songwriter Jason Conley of “Chapmanville,” the last track on his new CD of moving originals. “I know it’s a good one if I start crying when I’m writing it.”
The handsome, somewhat shy 32-year-old hails from the tiny coal-mining town of Chapmanville, W.Va., and his Southern accent oozed calmly from his lips as he sat on the patio of north Chico’s Euro Café nursing a cup of coffee and chatting in the unseasonably warm November sun.
Conley is well known in certain circles for his membership in indie “high lonesome” trio Slap Shoe Fly, a band he formed with fellow singer-songwriter Johnny Callahan and drummer David Waymire, two Siskyou County musicians he ran into when he was in Nashville, where he lived for a year before moving to Chico three years ago. The band got its name because of the way Conley slaps his foot on the ground when he plays.
Now, with three Slap Shoe Fly albums under his belt, Conley is striking out on his own. Though he has musical support on his latest effort, The Postulant Thief, from local fiddler Tom Carlson and upright bassist Tristan Behm, Conley is decidedly “a solo singer-songwriter who happened to be in a band for a while.”
Conley recalled the first time he ever picked up a guitar, at age 13, back in Chapmanville. The instrument belonged to his older brother Terry.
Wanting to show up his brother ("You know how you always want to outdo your older brother?"), he got a hold of the guitar, set up the family’s Hoover vacuum cleaner as a “microphone” and proceeded to rock out to the best of his fledgling ability.
“My brother never did go anywhere with it,” said Conley matter-of-factly, but without bad feelings, of his brother’s guitar playing.
The “son of a disabled, guitar-pickin’ coal miner and a Southern Virginia belle,” as he puts it on his MySpace page, Conley is the youngest ("the ‘oops'") of five kids. The sometimes rocky path that led him from Chapmanville to Chico, where he lives with his fiancée, Tiffany, and his 9-year-old daughter, Skyler (from a previous relationship), included stops in Tennessee and at a rehab facility in Florida.
It’s been seven years since Conley recovered from being “a bad heroin addict,” which seems to have been at least partly in response to being raised by a very strict, emotionally distant father—though Conley is not quick to heap blame upon his dad.
“That’s the way that life was in the coal-mining town of Chapmanville, West Virginia,” Conley offered, almost as if he were reciting the lyrics of a song. “It was normal to whip your kids. It was normal [for a father] not to have a relationship with [his] kids.”
At age 22, Conley found himself in a West Palm Beach drug rehab program—having transferred there from a similar place in his home state. He stayed in the program for three years. It was during that time when he decided to devote himself to being a musician.
“I just had to find something I could believe in,” he said.
Conley moved to Nashville at the advice of a Sony rep who heard him perform in Florida. And it was at Nashville’s famous Bluebird Café, where Conley was playing solo, when he met Callahan.
Slap Shoe Fly played on Nashville street corners and recorded its first CD, The Sunrise Dungeon, in 2004, in the leaky basement of the place on Sunrise Avenue where Conley was staying.
Though he is unable to tour since he got custody of his daughter in early 2006, he has no intention of sidelining his musical pursuits.
“Maybe one day I’ll be able to tour again,” said Conley, “but I’m not gonna let that stop me from playing music and writing songs. I live for that.”