Billy Conway had four letters printed on the head of his snare drum: “PS” and “SP.” To him, they were shorthand reminders to “Play Simply” and “Simply Play.”
“Billy worked really hard to defend his simplicity,” says songwriter Jeffrey Foucault.
Conway, who died Sunday at age 65 after a long battle with cancer, was noted for his spare, intuitive playing on small, often customized drum kits. Best known as a member of the bluesy ‘80s band Treat Her Right and Morphine, the noir-ish Boston trio that became an unlikely alternative-rock sensation in the 1990s, Conway also played on records by the late Bill Morrissey and Maine country singer Dick Curless, and he had long associations with Foucault, Chris Smither, and several others.
Smither, the veteran folk and blues singer, was unaccustomed to working with a drummer until he began playing regularly with Conway a decade or so ago. It was astonishing, he says, “how much of a form-fitting cement he could be. He’d just ooze into the cracks and get it all tied together.
“After that, I didn’t want anybody else.”
Virtually everyone who worked with Conway felt the same. When Foucault was looking for a drummer in 2009, he asked his wife, songwriter Kris Delmhorst, to name the best one she knew.
“That’s easy,” she said. “It’s Billy Conway.” Foucault and Conway spent the next several years touring the country together.
When Smither brought Conway to New Orleans to play on “Still on the Levee,” his 2014 album marking 50 years of songwriting, the great pianist Allen Toussaint showed up as a guest. During a break, Toussaint passed by Conway and put his hand on his shoulder.
“When I heard there was gonna be a drummer,” he said under his breath, “I was nervous. I ain’t nervous no more.”
Conway, says Smither, “just lit up like a Christmas tree.”
As much as Conway was known for his stand-up style of drumming and the subtle accents he brought to his collaborators’ music, his friends and admirers say he had other simple talents: an impressive sense of perspective and an ability to create community wherever he went. Foucault cites the Inuit term isumataq, someone who “creates the environment in which wisdom reveals itself.”
“That’s an excellent way to describe his personal force and magnetism,” says Foucault, who became one of Conway’s closest friends. “He had a really broad mind, and he was interested in everything. He had an uncanny ability to bring out the best in other people. I saw it over and over.”
Conway and his partner, the singer Laurie Sargent, moved back to New England in October 2020 from a decade-long interlude in Montana. With most of her family and closest friends on the East Coast — she was once the voice of the Boston-based New Wave group Face to Face — she needed their support during his illness. They’d survived a devastating fire at their Big Sky farm in 2014; a few weeks before they were due to move back, Sargent broke her clavicle in a horse-riding accident.
They drove across the country with a friend in a rented RV and moved into a farmhouse at the end of a dirt road in southwestern New Hampshire, a place dating to the 1780s that had belonged to a close friend of Sargent’s mother.
“The house became available to us through the way life works,” Sargent says.
Upon their return Conway played a few gigs with Foucault, until the Delta variant of the coronavirus forced him back off the road.
“He switched from gigging to finishing the chicken coop and stacking the wood,” says the partner he called “Sarge.”
Conway grew up a star athlete in a small town in Minnesota. While attending Yale (where he captained the hockey team), he befriended Jim Fitting, who played harmonica, and future record producer Paul Kolderie, who played bass. In Boston, Conway and Fitting joined Mark Sandman and David Champagne to form the band Treat Her Right.
At an early gig at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge, the band was forbidden to play drums, Champagne says: “So Billy stomped on the trap door to the kitchen and played his sticks on the railing.”
Soon after, Champagne spotted a classified ad for a cocktail drum, a portable kit that combines the snare and bass drums. They bought it for $75, he says.
The sound Conway got out of his new gear suited the classic Chess Records-style blues feel that Champagne envisioned for the band: “We wanted a quiet, minimalist thing. It was probably a reaction to what other people were doing at the time.
“It was perfect in my mind,” says Champagne. (This week he launched a new website featuring an impromptu album he cut with Fitting and Conway on a visit to Montana a couple of years ago.)
In 1989, Sandman, playing a modified bass guitar with a slide, formed Morphine with saxophonist Dana Colley and drummer Jerome Deupree. When Deupree developed a hand ailment, Conway filled in; they alternated in that role, and sometimes played alongside each other, through the group’s rise to stardom, until Sandman’s sudden death in 1999.
Conway, Sargent, and Colley then formed the band Twinemen, named after a comic series Sandman had created. They also helped manage his Hi-n-Dry studio and record label for several years, until the couple moved to Montana.
In early 2020, Sargent fulfilled a longtime goal when she finally got Conway to compile an album’s worth of his own songs. They released “Outside Inside” and a new album of hers, “Smiley Face,” on a label they called Crazy View. (It was the same thing they’d named their farm in Montana, which stood at the foot of the Crazy Mountains.) Proceeds helped defray the medical expenses of Conway’s illness.
A few weeks ago Smither drove up to New Hampshire to visit with Conway. They sat for hours by the wood stove, both wearing knit caps.
“You guys look like a Norman Rockwell painting,” Sargent said.
She’d hoped to stage a “silent disco” party for Conway’s 65th birthday earlier this month. Years ago, at a music festival in Vermont, he’d flipped for the experience, in which participants dance while wearing wireless headphones. She planned playlists of Prince songs and old country music.
He would have watched from a window as their friends romped quietly around a campfire. By then, however, he was too ill for visitors.
In the days leading to his death, Conway spoke often of gratitude, Sargent says. He passed away peacefully.
Smither, who is 77, says it was good to spend one last afternoon with him.
“When you get to be my age, you start looking for people to show you how it’s done,” he says. “He had that in spades.”
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.