The late drummer Billy Conway was a sideman. Best known as a member of Treat Her Right and Morphine, he worked on records by Chris Smither, Bill Morrissey, Catie Curtis, and many others.
But he also wrote songs on guitar — dozens of them, going back to the acquisition of his first four-track cassette recorder in the 1980s. He wrote the songs for the sheer joy in the doing, not to share them or to urge his fellow musicians to record them.
Just over a year after Conway’s death at age 65 after a long battle with cancer, a close circle of friends have completed “Further On: The Songs of Billy Conway,” a collection that features Smither, Caitlin Canty, Jeffrey Foucault, Kris Delmhorst, and Conway’s wife, Laurie Sargent, among others. The album will be released on Bandcamp and other platforms on Friday.
For Foucault, who toured with Conway for years and became one of his closest friends, it’s a solace and also an amusement to know that his comrade would have been “over-the-moon happy hearing his songs with all these voices, and he also would have turned himself inside-out being the center of attention. He would have simultaneously loved and hated it.”
A good day for Conway, his friends say, was one he’d spent working with his hands, swinging a hammer or tending to the horses. At sundown, he’d crack open a beer and play some guitar.
At one point, Foucault says, “I talked him into giving me some of those recordings. He had two or three discs’ worth of stuff.”
A few weeks after Conway’s death, Foucault went up to the farmhouse in southwestern New Hampshire to go snowshoeing with Sargent. That day they hatched the idea of rounding up some of Conway’s colleagues, including Morphine’s Dana Colley, Treat Her Right’s Jim Fitting, and horn arranger Russ Gershon, to take part in a “working wake.”
During Conway’s last months, after they’d moved his bed into the main living space of the farmhouse, friends came and went, Foucault says.
“When he was awake, we would sit near him, and when he was more or less out of it we would just sit in the other room and play,” he says. “We’d play songs by Hank Williams, the Faces, Merle Haggard — you name it, just all the tunes.
“It felt so good, and it sounded so good in that room. It felt like when it got down to the wire and Bill was obviously about to check out, it was such a beautiful way to die. Most people sequester themselves or end up in a hospital bed. This was people cooking, laughing, drinking, making music, and taking turns to go and talk to Bill. I think the project is a pretty natural extension of what felt great about that.”
The first order of business was to decide on a drummer who could record the parts Conway would have played. The group chose Jeff Berlin, a longtime regular around the Boston scene who has lived in Vermont for more than a decade.
“He plays with this gravitas and pathos that seemed like the right call,” says Foucault, who lives in Western Massachusetts with Delmhorst, his wife. Their 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, sings “Trouble in Heaven” on the album; it’s a song Conway wrote back in the ‘80s, from a young person’s perspective.
To Hazel, Foucault says, Conway was family. When he stayed at their place, he’d often sleep out on the three-season porch. No matter how late the grown-ups had been up making music, he’d tell Hazel he’d get up with her in the morning.
“One time she wrote a note — ‘Billy, wake up!’ — and put it in an envelope, walked around outside the house, and put it in the mail slot,” Foucault recalls with a laugh. “They had an incredibly sweet relationship.”
“Love Ain’t Around,” which Foucault sings, was written about Conway’s grandmother after she passed away. Sargent’s version of “I Feel You Moving,” with harmonica recorded by Fitting in a studio in Italy, has an intentional Chicago-blues feel reminiscent of Treat Her Right. Delmhorst says that Conway wrote one of the songs she chose, “Once Is Enough,” about Dick Curless, the Maine country singer who featured Conway on drums on his farewell album in 1995.
Proceeds from the album release will benefit the Billy Conway Artist Fund, a nonprofit that will provide financial support and mentorship for creative young people from underserved communities in Montana. Conway and Sargent lived there for a decade or so before moving back to New England.
Beyond that, Foucault says, the album’s worth came from the making of it. Just as Conway would have wanted it.