Jeffrey Foucault writes tribute to drummer Billy Conway

Conway has recently been diagnosed with liver cancer.

Jeffrey Foucault performing with Billy Conway. Image: Nikki A. Rae

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Jeffrey Foucault has penned a touching tribute to his long-time friend and drummer Billy Conway.

Conway, who has collaborated with Foucault on some of his most recognisable songs, has recently been diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer, and so alongside diving into their history on the road as a musician pairing Foucault urges fans to purchase both Billy’s recent solo record and his partners’. He also urged people to donate to a fundraiser that has been established to help cover his medical expenses. As Foucault puts it, “In America, being sick is expensive. Rather than simply ask for financial help, they’re offering you the best of themselves.”

Read the tribute in full below:

“If you’ve come out to a show or bought a record of mine in the last decade, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Billy Conway on the drums: broad, magic smile on his face, the rare balance of delicacy and power framing every note. Sometimes on the full kit, but often enough just a snare, ride, lowboy, and a suitcase with Mardi Gras beads hanging off of the handle. Simplicity itself.

“Maybe you know something about Billy’s life. That he was a Minnesota hockey savant, went to Yale on a scholarship, captain of the team. Maybe you know he took his Ivy League degree and taught at-risk kids in inner-city Boston; that he toured the world with Treat Her Right, and rose to fame with Morphine, becoming one of the best known and most respected drummers in American Music. Maybe you know that he’s met everyone from Johnny Cash to Roy Orbison, backed up Bo Diddley, opened for Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos. Maybe you know that after Mark Sandman died on stage during a Morphine show in Italy, Billy went home and started producing records at Hi-n-Dry Studios, a central force in the Boston music scene in the early part of the century.

“Maybe you know that Billy moved to rural Montana and started cowboying on a ranch there, helping his partner – the songwriter and performer Laurie Sargent – to run an organic farm at the foot of the Crazy Mountains. That in addition to playing drums on countless records, he’s written a dozen indelible songs, and he co-wrote Blood Brothers, Little Warble, and Take Your Time with me on our albums. Maybe you met him once, outside the club at the set break. Maybe you noticed his hands, battered and scarred, swollen like old tools left out in the rain. I wrote the song Pretty Hands for my wife, but I always liked to joke that I only ever got to play it for Bill.

“Like Willie and Paul, we received our education in the cities of the nation, but I received mine, in no small part, from Billy: every day on the road together a master class in how to move through the world with some grace, and humility, and simple kindness. People tend to like themselves better around Billy. No one ever said that about me, but when people are with Billy they feel as though someone they instinctively love and respect sees only their best.

“He’s my best friend, and my big brother. He’s been my partner on the road all these years, and we’ve seen things together I cannot accurately describe alone, and covered miles beyond telling. We’ve laughed, and we’ve played.

“Friends, Billy has been diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer. It’s what they call ‘manageable,’ but it won’t get better. He needs love and support from all of us, and that’s why I’m reaching out to you.

“In the sixteen months since we returned from our last European tour, Billy has undergone surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Two weeks after a major abdominal incision he was back behind the kit, playing with such immense spiritual power that one night in Missoula he just about levitated us all right off the stage. He missed a series of tours, got good news, and bad news, then more good news and bad news. We were back on the road together this past fall in the Northwest, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, and we were booked through the winter and spring. In January, a scan showed that the cancer had found his liver. He still has a dance card, but we don’t know how long it is. He means to stick around a while, and we’ll keep playing together whenever and wherever we can, and making records. He’s built to play, and he’s tough as nails.

“Last winter and spring while Billy was home in Montana – undergoing treatment, walking the fenceline every day, feeding the animals, and sleeping in the same bed for 30 nights in a row for the first time in 30 years – he finally recorded some of the many songs he’s written over the course of his career on the road. The result, Outside Inside, is Billy’s first solo record, and a collection of songs just as wry, deep, beautiful, and simple as the man himself. Today he’s releasing that record into the world – along with a lovely album called Smiley Face (featuring Billy and Moses on rhythm, and a host of great Boston players) that his partner Laurie made but set aside when Billy was diagnosed. There was a video premiere last week.

“Billy and Laurie are offering these new records as part of a fundraiser to cover their medical bills. In America, being sick is expensive. Rather than simply ask for financial help, they’re offering you the best of themselves.

“I was ready to hang it up, working my way down a long blind alley alone. There was something I wished to do, or to be, but it receded perpetually just over the horizon. Then Billy and I started playing together, and his generous spirit, deep knowledge, and fierce willingness to give the best parts of himself to music; his mastery of his instrument, and the simple dignity that he brings to the act of play, changed my life. My story became his story, and his story became mine. We embarked on a long conversation, about everything, and it’s never stopped.

“I’m asking you to please help my dear friend, our friend. Please donate directly any support you can afford. No sincere gesture will go astray. And then, go buy these beautiful albums. It’s going to be a long road, and Billy and Laurie need the kind of security that allows them to focus on being well, and staying well. I’ve learned over the years that the people who follow my work are generous, and kind. I’ve learned to trust them. It means the world.”

Find out more at crazyviewrecords.com.

Foucault is also offering slide guitar lessons over the internet at the moment due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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