CATCHING UP WITH: EXILE

Rock 'n' roll made stars out of the Kentucky band Exile, but country made them superstars. and after four decades, they're still hitting the road.

It's been 14 years since Exile last hit the country Top 10 - a fact that doesn't seem to worry singer, guitarist and co-founder J.P. Pennington one bit.

"As far as making new records and having big smash radio hits ... we don't even pursue that anymore," says J.P., cooling down after a show in Los Angeles. "We're past that. We have our melancholy moments about all that, but we just feel really lucky that it was even able to happen in the first place."

Happen it did. One of country's most unexpected success stories began in June 1963, when J.P. and singer/guitarist Les Taylor formed Exile in Lexington, Ky. They spent 15 years beating the bushes in the music industry before finally landing a No. 1 pop smash, "Kiss You All Over," in the fall of 1978.

But pop fame proved fleeting, and it looked like Exile was finished - until the members began reinventing themselves as country hitmakers. First came songwriting triumphs - Alabama took J.P.'s "Take Me Down" and "The Closer You Get" to No. 1, while Janie Fricke did the same with "It Ain't Easy Bein' Easy," penned by Taylor.

The band itself - then also including bassist Sonny LeMaire, keyboardist Marlon Hargis and drummer Steve Goetzman - finally landed its own record deal after Nashville execs caught their show, which included a blistering medley of Motown classics.

"I'm still amazed that we were an R&B band in country music having No. 1 hits," laughs Steve, who no longer plays in the band but is still involved in Exile's business affairs. "I still, to this day, haven't figured that out."

Exile's hit streak began in late '83 and included 10 No. 1 hits, including "Give Me One More Chance," "Hang on to Your Heart" and "I Don't Want to Be a Memory." J.P. and Sonny even found time to write yet another No. 1 along the way, the Forester Sisters' "Just in Case."

But by 1989, J.P. and Les had grown disenchanted with the constant grind of touring, recording and writing - especially since it kept them away from home while their kids were growing up. Both quit within a five-month period.

"I was just burnt out," J.P. reflects. "And when Les left, that kinda tore it for me. We'd been together doing it for so long, and it really hit me hard."

The band soldiered on without them for a few years, notching another pair of hits with "Nobody's Talking" and "Yet," before dissolving at the end of 1993.

But only two years later, J.P. and Les picked up the Exile name, assembled some new backing musicians and began touring again. They've made a new album, I Can't Be Your Fool, which they sell at shows and on their official website, exileband.com. Fans won't be surprised in the least by the band's current sound. "We haven't really changed all that much," notes J.P.

Whether Exile's new music takes the world by storm or not, they're content. "It's a great living," concludes J.P. "We made a great name for ourselves, had a great time and were able to provide for our families. Everything's cool."

-- Tom Roland

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