Billy Conway, former Morphine and longtime Americana drummer, fighting cancer

Jeffrey Foucault performs at Radio Heartland
Billy Conway plays drums with Jeffrey Foucault in the Radio Heartland studio. (Nate Ryan | MPR)

"Morphine were an amazing band," says The Current's Bill DeVille. "They made quite a racket with just sax, drums, bass and voice!"

In the 1990s, indie-rockers Morphine made a huge splash in alternative music, releasing five acclaimed albums and touring relentlessly until the lead singer, Mark Sandman, died of a heart attack while performing in Italy in 1999. Although not a founding member of the band, Morphine's drummer through much of the band's arc was Billy Conway. DeVille says his favorite Morphine song is "Cure for Pain," a song that could now be a rallying cry for drummer Conway, who has been diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer.

Conway was born in Owatonna, Minn., and was a gifted hockey player — so good, in fact, he attended Yale University on a full scholarship, and he captained the team in his fourth season there, 1978-79. Conway was invited to try out for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, but had to decline attending tryouts due to a knee injury. After college, Conway worked as a special-education teacher, and he parlayed the energy he formerly expended grinding it out in the corners or digging for loose pucks in the slot into drumming for bands in and around Boston, including with his longtime friend Jim Fitting, eventually landing with Morphine in 1993. Following Morphine's cessation, Conway worked as a producer at Hi-n-Dry Studios in Cambridge, Mass., which Sandman had founded.

Since 2013, Conway has largely plied his trade with Americana singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault, who calls Conway "one of the best-known and most-respected drummers in American music."

Like Conway, Foucault originated in the Upper Midwest — he's from Whitewater, Wis. — and has resettled in Massachusetts (although Conway now maintains primary residence in Montana). Foucault credits Conway with rescuing his music career. "I was ready to hang it up, working my way down a long blind alley alone," Foucault wrote on his website. "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. … We embarked on a long conversation, about everything, and it's never stopped."

Conway has performed in the MPR studios for Radio Heartland sessions, both with Foucault and also with Kris Delmhorst, another Massachusetts singer-songwriter. "Billy is an exceptional human and a really tasty drummer," says Radio Heartland host Mike Pengra. "He's been in the studio here three times [2015, 2017 and 2018], drumming with Foucault and Delmhorst."

In appeal to fans, Foucault circulated information about fundraising efforts for Conway, along with information about a new release from Conway and his partner, Laurie Sargent. Titled Outside Inside, the album is Conway's first solo record and features his original songs. Sargent, meanwhile, has released her own new album, Smiley Face, which features Conway on percussion as well as others from the Boston scene. "Billy and Laurie are offering these new records as part of a fundraiser to cover their medical bills," Foucault writes. "In America, being sick is expensive. Rather than simply ask for financial help, they're offering you the best of themselves."

More information about Billy Conway, and about Conway's and Sargent's albums Outside Inside and Smiley Face, can be found at the Crazy View Records website. "[Conway] means to stick around a while," Foucault writes, "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."

External Links

Crazy View Records - official site

Jeffrey Foucault - official site

Kris Delmhorst - official site

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2 Photos

  • Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault
    Billy Conway plays drums with Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault in the Radio Heartland studio. (Mike Pengra | MPR)
  • Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault
    Billy Conway performs on drums with Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault in the Radio Heartland studio. (Mike Pengra | MPR)