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Making music or weathering misfortune, Billy Conway and Laurie Sargent are in this together

Billy Conway credits his partner, Laurie Sargent, for providing the push he needed to finish his first solo record after a career as a sideman.Allison Kazmierski

When it came time to fill out the paperwork, Laurie Sargent couldn’t bring herself to do it. She had a pen in her hand, but her hand wouldn’t move.

For the insurance company, she was supposed to itemize all the things they’d lost in the fire in Montana. Frustrated and overwhelmed, she finally decided to begin by listing the things she and her partner, Billy Conway, had not lost.

They had not lost each other. They had not lost their animals. And they hadn’t lost their drums and guitars: By chance, they’d been housesitting for a friend when their own home accidentally burned to the ground.


“What we learned from that loss,” Sargent says, “was what we had.”

The fire happened in late 2014. Not long thereafter, Conway, 63, the distinctive drummer for the revered Boston bands Morphine and Treat Her Right, was diagnosed with cancer. For the past few years he has endured grueling rounds of treatment and surgery.

About a year ago, the couple prepared for their first summer without a harvest since they moved to Montana — she calls it “New Hampshire on steroids” — more than a decade ago. With so much downtime ahead of them, Sargent convinced Conway to record some of the songs he’d accumulated over the years.

The result, “Outside Inside,” has just been released on CD and for digital download, along with a second album, “Smiley Face,” that Sargent shelved after her partner’s initial diagnosis.

The songs on “Outside Inside” range from a couple of seeds Conway planted back in the days of Treat Her Right, in the late 1980s, to more recent inspirations, including the lead track, “Get Well.”

“The thing for me is, because I was a sideman, I never had to finish any songs,” Conway says, talking on the phone this week from the couple’s rebuilt home on their organic farm. “They pretty much all were never really in finished form.”


But Sargent — he calls her “Sarge” — pushed him to finish them.

“Every day she was using the appropriate method to get the song out of me,” he says. “Some days that was hand-holding, and some days it was butt-kicking.”

Sometimes she did both at once, he says with a laugh: “That requires a form of yoga, really.”

Sargent and Conway have been reluctant to make their plight known, or to ask for help, until now. They were convinced in large part by Jeffrey Foucault, the Western Massachusetts songwriter with whom Conway toured for much of the past decade. Coordinating the releases, Foucault felt, would accomplish two things: raising money toward Conway’s mounting medical bills, and providing an opportunity for friends and admirers to show their appreciation for a true original.

“People all over the country, wherever we go, love that man,” Foucault says. “He’s a magic human.”

Conway, who grew up in Minnesota, was captain of his hockey team at Yale. In college he met Jim Fitting, the future harmonica player in Treat Her Right. The band, which also featured guitarists Mark Sandman and David Champagne, had a brief but celebrated run. Amplifying their less-is-more theme, Conway began playing a cocktail drum — a single drum with a snare head on top and a kick bass on the bottom. He played the simple kit standing up.


“We all had been in bands that had too much gear,” Conway explains. “We literally said, let’s start a band where we can carry in our gear in one trip. The goal was to use the parameters of having less stuff to force creativity out of the stuff we did use.”

The cocktail drum became Conway’s hallmark. He played small kits in Morphine, the peerless band led by Sandman and saxophonist Dana Colley, after he began filling in for original drummer Jerome Deupree.

The equipment “forced me to learn how to draw a groove out of minimal choices,” Conway says. “It was a really healthy thing for my drumming. I never felt like I was a kid without toys — I felt like I had the toy I needed.”

After Sandman died suddenly in 1999, onstage in Italy, Conway and Sargent formed the band Twinemen with Colley. They also helped run Hi-n-Dry, the Cambridge studio and record label that originated in Sandman’s loft. Conway produced two albums by Kris Delmhorst, who is married to Foucault, and he played on albums by Chris Smither, Bill Morrissey, and others. His drumming also appears on a 1999 recording of the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s classic “A Coney Island of the Mind.”

Yet he was no longer particularly interested in chasing glory in music.

“After Mark died, he scaled back,” says Foucault. “He could have been an A-list, first-call drummer. When famous people came calling, he’d be like, ‘Are they fun to be around?’ ”


Conway found “Sarge” more fun to be around. She was the lead singer of the Boston-based new wave band Face to Face, which had an MTV-era hit with “10-9-8.” That band produced guitarist Stu Kimball, who went on to tour with Bob Dylan, and the Nashville-based songwriter and producer Angelo Petraglia.

With some of Conway’s Morphine money, the couple bought a small farm in Sargent’s New Hampshire hometown. There they developed a “horse habit,” she jokes, which in turn led to the Montana move.

Sargent’s new album was delayed twice, first by Conway’s diagnosis, then the death of guitarist Ian Kennedy. The label they created for the two new releases is named for their farm at the foot of the Crazy Mountains, which they call Crazy View. Despite the rough times, the title track to Sargent’s album, “Smiley Face,” describes the legacy she hopes to leave behind.

“I want my marker to signify joy,” she says.

Recently, doctors told Conway that the cancer had metastasized to his liver. His health can be managed, but the prognosis is not good.

They’re facing down the news.

“You have to be tough,” says Sargent. “But you also have to choose how you want to be defined. … I don’t think either one of us wants to be defined by travails.”

For the liner notes to his album, Conway wrote, “I found out I was sick. I also found out I was lucky.”

A lifetime of making music, he says, has given him much more than just the music. It has given him a family of friends — “like-minded, compassionate people.”


When those friends rallied to help finish his album, it was the process, not the end result, that mattered.

“Working together with friends to make something — that’s healing,” he says. "That’s fulfilling. That’s rewarding.”

For more information about Conway and Sargent’s music, go to https://crazyviewrecords.com.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.