What were they going to do now? Go country? The unflappable Mr. Morey shrewdly saw the logic and lodged the suggestion. Robin Williams never got the laughs Jim did when he proposed the country conversion to these heart-proud rockers. Nonetheless, they thought enough of the idea once the laughter subsided to start listening to country radio. Turns out, country wasn’t as bad as it first sounded. There was even connection between the songs they were writing and what was beginning to work in country. When they began to hear their songs on country radio performed by others, the verdict was in. Perhaps most importantly, Morey was able to finally get the band released from Warner/Curb Records which freed the bird to fly. Delving deep into their own creative soul they took themselves out to the woodshed for what turned into two years of top-to-bottom reinvention. The game plan was a new musical direction, new songs, a new vocal group sound to soup up the strong-as-steel band chassis and a new industry home as the target in Nashville. Now they were good to go country. Another crucial move Morey made was to put the band in the arms & ears of producer/publisher Buddy Killen. Aside from playing bass for Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys and co-founding Nashville publishing juggernaut Tree Music Publishing, Buddy was a prolific and successful producer. From Dolly Parton to Joe Tex with Roger Miller squeezed in between, Buddy was as diverse as a happening producer can get. It was love at first cut. Then, with the new direction neatly folded into hot new recordings, the band only had to go to Nashville to showcase for labels twice before being snatched up by CBS’ Epic Records. They got off to a roaring start by Exile standards. The first single, “The High Cost of Leaving” clawed its way to #14. But the second single, previously the bane of their musical existence, shot to #1 in early ‘83. “Woke Up In Love” woke up the career-in-waiting like a marching band stomping into their bed and you can bet they were never happier to see that bunch of tuba players. This opened the floodgates on nine consecutive #1 singles: “I Don’t Want To Be A Memory”, “Give Me One More Chance”, “She’s A Miracle”, “Crazy For Your Love”, “Hang On To Your Heart”, “I Could Get Used To You”, “It’ll Be Me”, “She’s Too Good To be True” and “I Can’t Get Close Enough”. The record sales and award recognition that had eluded them for more than 20 years was finally in their hands. Points in fact include three gold albums, two Greatest Hits CDs, several multi-platinum singles and thirteen award nominations from the Academy of Country Music (ACM) and the Country Music Association (CMA). All totaled they notched 11 number ones and a respectable host of top 10’s in the Epic years. The discography here on the website has all the album titles for you to check out. Morey retained the William Morris Agency. In a company as large as William Morris even successful acts can have important opportunities pass them by without an enthusiastic, experienced agent on the inside that has their back and shares the vision. With Ray Shelide as their responsible agent they had the right guy. The dates came in fast and furious. Shelide recalls, “Exile was my first ‘responsible agent’ duty shortly after joining William Morris. This band had hit hard one time before only to watch it all go away. They were a great band AND unique vocal group which has always been a rare combination, especially in country music. I was honored to help them make the most of this second chance. And they delivered, above-and-beyond the call of duty at every show. It was a great relationship that lasted for close to 8 years.”
One of the first big touring opportunities that came along was to open the Ricky Skaggs tour. Although they all laugh about it now, Ricky sent word to the guys that they could not perform “Kiss You All Over” while opening his dates. His organization felt it sent the wrong message to his audience. Given the impact of their live performance they were once again awash in tour opportunities. They shared shows with the biggest stars on the scene including Lee Greenwood, The Oak Ridge Boys & The Gatlin Brothers. At one time the Judds opened for Exile then as the Judds’career exploded their roles reversed with Exile opening for the ladies. Remember that inverse relationship between success and happiness? It never goes away. It only gets worse. By 1986, tempers and tolerance were short & fragile and the demand on their time & energy longer & harder than ever. In the best of times dispute resolution on all levels of importance is a challenge. When one stirs in fatigue, distractions, financial inequities, creative differences, less-than-coherent thought & decision making processes, all hopped up with a healthy dose of Ego Rollerball, it’s amazing the cracks didn’t form before 1986. First off the ship was keyboard player, Marlon Hargis. “To quote B.B. King, the thrill was gone. We were doing things because we had to, not because we wanted to anymore.” Then went Les Taylor. “It’s an age old story: I had so many people telling me that I ought go my own way, I finally gave in to try it out.” J.P. Pennington was not far behind. "I was tired and missed my family and they missed me." What was left of the band left Epic. J.P. and Les got their opportunity to spread their solo wings with Epic clinging to Les and MCA eagerly signing J.P. Each had one hit single before the bloom was off their solo rose. Still on board were Sonny LeMaire & Steve Goetzman. Lee Carroll replaced Marlon. Les’absence thrust Sonny into a more prominent role with lead vocals and Mark Jones filled Les’spot onstage. Paul Martin took up some of J.P.’s slack. Given some divine providence in the timing department, Tim Dubois was opening the Nashville division of Arista Records and he was looking for a marquis artist to launch the label. The updated Exile landed the spot. A rose by any other name may still be a rose but the romantic logic doesn’t apply to bands. While each of the gentlemen who replaced the members who left is very talented and worked hard, plainly this wasn’t the same band despite the name. This wasn’t a mystery to Lemaire or Goetzman. Lemaire elaborates, “When we signed with Arista we tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Tim to allow us to change our name. We felt we were a very different band with the new members & new sound emerging. Songs I was writing were taking a different turn from the things J.P. & I used to write.” Dubois’ insistence on a marquee artist to kick things off made the idea a non-starter. After two albums and four top-ten singles the long and winding road wound down for the Exile brand in February ’94 leaving Goetzman and Lemaire tired of mind, body & spirit. Dubois puts it in perspective saying, “Although we didn’t achieve the success we dreamed of, I am incredibly proud of the music we made and proud to have played a small part in a huge career. I love these guys.”Lemaire goes even further. “After we asked off Arista, I was certain we'd find another label. It became apparent after some time that the winds of change had caught up with us. Labels didn't
want an old act with ‘baggage’ no matter how good we sounded. I felt I couldn't continue without being able to do new music so my passion for continuing just ‘left the building.’” I struggled for some time with my decision to quit but I finally could not deny my true feelings. After I told the guys I could not go on, we came to a mutual decision to lay it all down with dignity.”With every ending come new beginnings. What sets the Nashville music business apart from the other major hubs is that it is a songwriter-publisher driven community where the others are artist-driven. Whether the artist is Kenney Chesney or Keni Thomas, virtually every Nashville artist has to make the pilgrimage to Songwriter River for the songs they need to make their records. Some artists decide they, too, want to write songs and seasoned songwriters know writing with the artist gives them a better chance of getting a song recorded. Some artists end up “sitting in the room and on the song”while the pros do the real work. Others like Pennington, Lemaire & Taylor have an aptitude for the trade and used their place in the Artist Food Chain to learn how to write really well. While riding the crest of hits, the best-of-the-best songwriters beat a path to the bus to write with Exile’s writing trio. The three guys, in turn, reached outside their own nest to cultivate quite the healthy peer group of co-writers. It proved to be an important career decision on their part. This was the tether to the business for Pennington, Lemaire & Taylor when the wheels came off their artist vehicle. They honed their skills to the point they all had hits on other artists. Among many others, J.P. had “The Closer You Get” and “Take Me Down” for Alabama; Sonny scored hits such as “When She Cries” for Restless Heart and “Beautiful Mess” for Diamond Rio; Les clocked in with “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Easy” for Janie Fricke as well as cuts on Travis Tritt and Shelby Lynne.. Lemaire has remained most rooted in the Nashville songwriting community and has a crystal clear perspective on what this skill set means. “Outside cuts are validation of your work. In our case it gave us ‘props’ that we were, indeed, the real deal. In a town & business where the song is everything, the fact that we could deliver the goods for other artists, gave us credibility. It was a major factor in Exile getting a second shot, which rarely happens in this business.”Les has reflected on his decision to go solo and then move back to Lexington many times in the intervening years, commenting, “If I had it to do over, like most people I would do a lot of things differently. First, I realized what being in a great band really meant to me. Second, Lexington is a beautiful, charming place. It’s home but it’s not Nashville. It doesn’t have 10 songwriters per square mile; the unbelievable creativity that feeds my stream. I have a great life but I really miss being smack dab in the middle of it all like we were.”Goetzman snapped up the opportunity to go into management with guitar wizard Steve Wariner and later Eric Heatherly. J.P. dug into developing the regional music he found back home, recording and writing as much as ever. Marlon played with Jerry Reed, dabbled in management, ran a music store and honed his production chops. Some other members of the later versions of the band put away their dancing shoes and exited Nashville and show biz; wiser for the wear. It seemed as though all they had collectively wrought would simply fade into history. The primary five went their own way treating every day as the rest of their lives without being in the band. Opportunity is like water running down a roof; it will find a way in through the smallest openings. After years apart a common cause created reconnection. Former road manager Raymond
Patrick had suffered a serious motorcycle accident. Unable to work he was drowning in medical bills. A lasting band reunion was not the first thought J.P. had when the urge to help an old friend out of a bind popped up. He observes, “It became apparent that the best way the five of us could help him was to stage a benefit show to raise funds for him.” Old friend and fellow musician, Doug Breeding donated his club, The Blue Moon, in Lexington. Solely by word of mouth the show sold out in one lucky week for the St. Patrick’s Day 2008 benefit. Another former tour manager, Clarence Spalding (who now manages Brooks & Dunn and Jason Aldean) jumped in to help as well. The evening was a stunning success. Between ticket sales and auctions, $20,000 was raised. Being the blue-through-and-through, Kentucky gentleman he is, Spalding wrote a check matching the gross. Nearly 23 years after having played the last note as a band they found themselves back in familiar positions. The unbounded excitement of a successful show enveloped by the like-we-never-left gathering of brothers & others made playing together again a must. Soaked in a shower from the Band Fountain of Youth the band talked openly about the previously unconsidered: A reunion. A few rehearsals, some more discussion and a few more months elapsed before they scheduled a show at Nashville showcase venue, 3rd & Lindsley. Nov 5, 2008 became the chosen night. Looking back Goetzman grins as he remembers, “It was an amazing night; one of those incredible ‘supposed to happen’ kind of nights. We had so many friends like members of Restless Heart, Diamond Rio and all the songwriters who showed up to cheer us on. We can’t tell you what that support meant to us.”And now here they stand. Reinvigorated from the sabbatical; energized in making new music and reinforced by new appreciation of the good old days. They have learned a good bit along the way and the distilled wisdom tells them to not cast all their other interests aside as they embark on the new chapter. They have learned that the individual talents and interests offstage are intrinsic to the collaboration onstage. There’s therapeutic value in knowing once the Exile gig is finished tonight, each has other responsibilities to meet tomorrow. Those activities are as varied as the potpourri of personalities. Here on the website you can read more about what each member’s journey into, out of and back to the band. It’s their stories in their words. Please don’t leave until you check that out. The moral is the right combination is a group is the magic. Steven Van Zandt of Springsteen’s E-Street Band has been quoted as saying, “If you’ve got a band that works, it’s a miracle—hold on to it and don’t let it go. Exile’s story, wrapped in Little Steven’s insight, would constitute proof-positive that “the sum of the parts is, indeed, greater than the whole.”In the end one could either say the band was always a group of guys on the way to the middle...of their career. Or, better yet, they’re back where they belong: In Exile.