By Paul Robicheau
Laurie Sargent and Billy Conway found their sanctuary under the big sky of rural Montana. And while not every day is sunny and work on a farm can be hard, their art echoes the genuine nature of their lives, shared across the miles with their Boston base.
Billy Conway’s well known around Boston music circles for manning the drums for Morphine — and a cocktail kit before that for Treat Her Right – as well as lending his minimalist rhythms to singer/songwriters Jeffrey Foucault and Chris Smither. Fewer people know that Conway left Boston years ago to work an organic farm in Montana with longtime partner Laurie Sargent, or that he’s now battling cancer.
“I found out I was sick,” Conway — who recently went public that he has stage IV liver cancer — writes in the liner notes to his winsome solo debut Outside Inside. “I also found out I was lucky. When my friends found out, they said I should make a record … because they believe in the healing powers of music and community.”
Foremost at his side was Sargent, who postponed the release of her own sublime new album Smiley Face in late 2018 to remain home with Conway after his initial cancer diagnosis. He co-wrote some of her record in addition to playing drums and guitar, and she’s credited with singing, playing, producing, recording, and mixing for his album as well as “sensitive cajoling, hand-holding, and butt-kicking.” Their cast of friends on Outside Inside includes multi-instrumentalist Jabe Beyer, saxophonist Dana Colley (who played with Conway and Sargent in Twinemen in addition to giving ballast to Morphine), and bassist Jeremy Moses Curtis.
For his part, Conway surprises with his earthy whimsy as a singer and songwriter on Outside Inside, his craggy yet warm voice sounding closer to Randy Newman than Tom Waits. His salt-of-the-earth character infuses every song, including a few true gems.
“Let’s hope we can all get well,” Conway sings on opening track “Get Well,” his voice echoed by Sargent in a song that extends its balm beyond his own plight to everybody else, particularly in our current coronavirus crisis. “Got to keep the music playing,” he sings, his melodic hooks glazed by Colley’s familiar sax. “Gotta dance, gotta dance ’til you die.”
A strong, silent type more comfortable as a sideman, Conway allows, “I try to lose myself, and not to hide” in the sweet title track. Yet the slinky, seductive pulse of “Listen to the Lyin’” delivers the album’s most intoxicating turn — and gets wryly topical (even without its frisky video treatment where Conway and Sargent sport paper masks of Trump cronies). “Be careful what you believe,” they sing, and David “Goody” Goodrich’s slide oozes across his one-stringed diddley bow.
Other tracks inject a touch of bass clarinet or tuba, while Russ Gershon’s marimba tickles “New Americana Blues,” a jaunty tune in the vein of Treat Her Right where Conway’s phrasing doesn’t fit quite as comfortably. Some songs like the waltz “Darlin,’ I Miss You Again” likewise mine familiar stylistic ground.
But Outside Inside’s about conveying heart, humility, and honesty, not reinventing the musical wheel. “I was singing with your soul,” Conway sings of a dream about Asa Brebner, another veteran Boston musician and folk artist who died last year. In the closing “If I Had a Dollar,” Conway softly ruminates, “If I had a dollar, and everything was free, I wanna know, would you stay with me?”
Conway naturally returns the favor to Sargent with his rhythm and soul on Smiley Face, the most broadly captivating of her Americana-tinged solo albums since she retreated from the major-label pop ambitions of her ’80s band Face to Face.
Smiley Face bristles at the edges, surging from the impressionistic foreboding of “Stupid Wish” to the driving rock of the title track, where Sargent extols living for today without the worries and ceremony of the afterlife. “If I die by the highway side, don’t put up a white cross to mark the place, I want you to put up a smiley face,” she sings. “I’m happy in the world, I’ll be a happy dead girl.”
Other songs like “Still the Sky” tap a brooding undercurrent – and there’s a sad postscript in the 2018 passing of multi-instrumentalist Ian Kennedy, one of her Boston brethren who contributed to the album. Nonetheless, there’s a sense of resolve as Sargent explores darkness and light with gritty conviction and grace. “I might see nothing but darkness,” she sings, “but there’s still the sky.
Her musical palette also shows range and accessibility, from the mandolin and strings (both thanks to Kennedy) in “Marcy’s Thimble” to the soul-pop kiss of “Love Divine” and languid Latin lounge-folk of “Days Are Long,” iced with Evan Harriman’s accordion. The playful “Back in the Day” even takes a seeming jab at Sargent’s commercial past. “I feel bad for all you people stuck back in the day,” she sings with a dash of Rickie Lee Jones-like jive. “I’m so much better now than when I was all the rage.”
Ultimately though, the album closes much as it begins, on a ghostly yet more hopeful note with “Come Home,” laced with Kennedy’s rippling lead guitar and Sargent’s yearning refrain of “I want to come home.”
Sargent and Conway found their sanctuary under the big sky of rural Montana. And while not every day is sunny and work on a farm can be hard, their art echoes the genuine nature of their lives, shared across the miles with their Boston base of support in trying times.
Outside Inside and Smiley Face are available through Crazy View Records (named after the couple’s farm), where direct PayPal donations can also be made to help with Conway’s medical expenses: https://crazyviewrecords.com/new-releases
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.