It’s an honor for Karen E. Reynolds that her relationship with John Condrone, forged in a shared love of the power of the pen and the universal language of music, was so close that after his death on Oct. 20, many people reached out to ask if the two were related.
They’re not, but their friendship goes back some three decades, when Reynolds — considered one of the deans of the East Tennessee songwriting community — first met the Blount County artist, whose death due to COVID-19 on Oct. 20 has cast a pall of grief over the stages of so many who shared them with Condrone.
“He always called me ‘Sis,’ and when someone asked him, he would never clarify it,” Reynolds told The Daily Times this week. “Because of that, it touched me that somebody would occasionally ask if we were related, because I think that’s what happens, sometimes, when you share a true venture like songwriting with someone. In particular, in the songwriting community, we do become little pockets of family. Certainly, we’re all competing for the same end goal — we’re all trying to write the best song that we can and somehow find a way to make a living out of it, but to handle the business end, you have to start with passion in order to handle it correctly.
“Whenever John would call me ‘Sis,’ it just made me feel really good. We’ve lost a family member in this community, and that hurts deeply, whether you see them every day or not.”
Condrone’s own passion was evident when the two fell into one another’s orbit all those years ago, Reynolds said. It’s not unusual for many songwriters, good or not so good, to look at the tunes they create as a means to an end — stardom, riches or a career playing venues around the country. That’s not to say that famous songwriters aren’t also passionate, she added, but for those who never parlay their talents into fame, that passion will sustain them regardless.
“My first impression of John was that he just simply loved songwriting, and that’s always been something that’s just been a flag for me in becoming comfortable with people,” she said. “You have to kind of look and see who has, for lack of a better description, pure intentions, and immediately, I knew that he was a nice guy, that he was enthusiastic about music and songwriting and that he was very passionate about the craft.”
It’s little wonder, then, that so many other local songwriters responded immediately to requests by The Daily Times for thoughts on Condrone’s death, and what his life meant to them and their own careers.
Martha Christian: “John was the biggest personality in the room, but he built a community around him by willingly sharing the light that he could have easily absorbed. He inspired and encouraged so many with his contagious joy and his love of the song.” (www.marthachristian.com)
Johnathen “Johno” Clayton: “I met John Condrone for the first time at Windy City Grille in Maryville. At the time, I was 15, about to be 16, and I was working as a cook then. John hosted an open mic night there. He brought me on the lineup for it and gave a young boy a chance to play his originals in front of his hometown. He always told me to stay focused and write the truth, to never be scared to show passion. ‘People like the real stuff,’ he said. I’m thankful to have known such a talented well-respected man. He will be greatly missed by me and many others.” (www.johno claytonmusic.com)
Jason Ellis: “I met John Condrone at the first annual Smoky Mountain Songwriters Festival. He was so easy to talk to and really wanted to help each and every one of us that got to play, (just) always encouraging and inspirational. I was lucky enough to write a song with him not too long after. We wrote ‘Drinking My Baby Goodbye’ in a little over an hour, and I added it to my last CD back in 2015. John was a mentor to many of us and will truly be missed by the whole songwriting community.” (www.facebook.com/jasonellismusic)
John Fee: “The first time I met John was at Mulligan’s in Knoxville at a songwriter night. He always made me feel welcome and a genuine nice guy that helped or impacted careers not only in East Tennessee but across the U.S. He taught me to write about what’s going on in my life or world, and it always helped, especially (during) bad times.” (www.facebook.com/johnfeemusic)
Brandon Fulson: “I’ve never met anyone who had more enthusiasm for the songwriting process than John Condrone. Every moment, every one liner, was a potential song, and he forced you to be more mindful as a songwriter.” (www.facebook.com/ brandonfulsonmusic)
Emilie “Emisunshine” Hamilton: “John was an inspiration to so many songwriters. The minute we met him when I was 9, I felt accepted as a writer. For me and my mom (Alisha Hamilton, her songwriting partner), that was a huge step in bringing us to where we are today as writers.” (www.theemisunshine.com)
Chris Long: “I am still numb over the loss of my friend and brother in music. It is hard to summarize or say something in a few sentences. John was with me from my first steps into this world of performing as a songwriter. We shared the stage hundreds of times and had many more to come. Now he is gone, but every night he will be right there with me and everyone else that loved him as we perform and continued doing what he loved to do so much himself.” (www.facebook.com/ chrislongmusic)
Kevin Mahoney: “I owe so much to John. He ran an open mic that I stumbled upon about four years ago and we hit it off. He called me a few days later and invited me to a songwriter night where he welcomed me into this singer-songwriter community. We wrote together, we performed many, many times together and had a true brotherhood. I played on what was his last performance in Nashville before he got sick. Miss him greatly. He was so full of life, so full of song, so full of amazing talent. Love you, John. My brother …” (www.kevinmahoneymusic.com)
Laurel Wright of The Young Fables: Wes (Lunsford, her Young Fables bandmate) and I are actually the only musicians singing at his funeral. Marie (Owen, Condrone’s partner) asked us, and it’s an honor. I’ve known John for most of my life, and he’s been there through the ups and the downs. He’s been a stage manager to me, songwriting buddy, a security guard, a fan, but most of all a friend. One of the kindest men I’ve ever met in my entire life, and I’m heartbroken. I’m very honored to be singing at his funeral. When Marie called me it brought tears to my eyes. This is what John would have wanted and that makes saying goodbye a little easier.” (www. theyoungfables.com)
Acting as a mentor, coach or writing partner for other artists, especially those who called East Tennessee home was a calling for Condrone, Reynolds pointed out. For certain writers, penning songs is part of a longstanding tradition of passing down stories, tales, legends and myths from one generation to another, and that task is undertaken with reverence by those gifted with the ability to carry it out, she said.
“You look beyond, ‘Will this get me somewhere,’ and seeing another artist or another writer take what they have learned from you and take the craft and the profession further, with integrity, there’s very little that creates a better high,” Reynolds said. “You don’t look at the business as simply self-serving — you look at it as something the world needs to hear, regardless if it comes from you or someone else. Passing on that knowledge and watching these writers and artists take that and really build on it, it’s very humbling in a meaningful way. There really ins’t much more of a thrill than knowing that you not only have contributed to your community, but to the craft by helping to nurture people and show people that this is true art.”
Ironically, she and Condrone talked for years about writing together, but they never made time for it. Between them, there are dozens of songwriters who have found modest careers doing what they love, and if there was a professional songwriter’s festival or workshop in East Tennessee over the past several decades, chances are good that Reynolds and Condrone were somewhere behind the scenes.
“We actually talked about it two or three months ago, again, asking ourselves, ‘Why in the hell have we never written together?’” Reynolds said. “I think we both just kept going in our own directions fast enough and hard enough that we always felt like the other one would be there, and that we would make that happen eventually. It’s easy sometimes to forget that eventually is always affected by time’s relativity. We never have as much time as we hope and believe we do, and I really wish I would have said, ‘OK, let’s do it now.’”