Bill Coffey is not a singer-songwriter. He sees it the other way around.
Coffey is a musician with a day job and a family man with a wife and two kids. His musical talents include singing, playing guitar and more. However, when it comes to music, it's songwriting that he's most passionate about. As a songwriter-singer, Coffey says, "It's all about the writing first and foremost."
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, his early musical influences included Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon and John Prine. Dave Alvin, X, Los Lobos and other popular L.A. groups also affected his taste in music. Not surprisingly, Coffey puts Bob Dylan—a man better known for his songwriting than his singing—as his prime influence. "There's nobody else like Bob Dylan," he says.
In high school, Coffey's vocal abilities earned him the singing parts in school musicals. While still in high school, he formed a band, The Mudheads, with some of his friends, and they played their first paid gig a short while later. The band played together for about six years until it disbanded when Coffey moved to Idaho in 1992.
In a new state and without his former musical partners, Coffey honed his solo act. In that capacity, he opened for Dwight Yoakam, John Hiatt, Peter Case, George Jones and John Hammond. Opening for Hammond was one of his favorite experiences; opening for Yoakam was one of his most fulfilling.
More recently, he and Ned Evett—whom he met while working at Wirestone—have performed regularly as a duo. Working together ultimately led to playing together, including playing in a four-piece group named Soft Gong, acting as the "house band" for company office parties. Then they were invited to do a couple of corporate gigs. Now, Coffey and Evett are an established duo with a CD, These Dreams of Mine, recently released on Beehouse Records.
When he's not playing and promoting the new CD, Coffey is writing material for the next one. His goal is to finish each song he starts. When asked about some songwriters who agonize over each song for months, even years, he says, "I don't have that kind of patience."
On writing songs, he says, "If they're good, I'll be able to finish them." So, rather than leave his music to languish in an unfinished state for some later inspiration, he makes a point of getting the songs completed quickly. His advice to other aspiring songwriters is to just keep writing. "It's not hard to write songs," he says, "but it's hard to be a songwriter if you haven't written for a while."
Coffey says he's an active reader and often finds inspiration for his songs in books. He points to Carl Sandberg's gritty poetry with its strong imagery as an example. He finds that an isolated event or a single descriptive phrase can often lead to a whole song.
Though Coffey enjoys performing his own songs, he's open to writing songs for other musicians, and he'd like to have more of his songs published. With his recent recordings, he now has something to shop around. He says friends have mentioned Willie Nelson as a perfect fit for more than one of his songs. For Coffey, that would be a dream come true.
When Coffey performs, he's accompanied by a well-worn guitar: a 1937 Martin with serial number 0017 that he traded another guitar for about 20 years ago. He was immediately taken by it. When he saw it, he remembers thinking, "That looks like the guitar Woody Guthrie played." Now he says, "After my wife and the kids, it's my favorite."
Does he ever consider returning to California, a state with a much more vibrant music scene? No, he's impressed by what Boise has. "There's a lot of really good musicians [in Boise] for a town this size," he says. Boise has quality local musicians, he says, and is only lacking the musical variety you see in bigger cities. He wishes there were more venues where aspiring local musicians could perform.
When asked whom he's listening to now, he mentions Idaho native Eilen Jewell; a Portland performer, Fernando Viciconte; and Elvis Costello again, among others. However, he's found that jazz seems to provide a good background for his songwriting activities.
Even as he keeps writing, Coffey knows he has to keep his day job. He recognizes that selling enough CDs to be a full-time musician is tough, but says, "It's not about selling a bunch of CDs, it's about getting good." How does a working family man tour? He says his strategy is to focuses on short trips to places like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco that only require a long weekend.
He and Evett have a few trips like that scheduled to promote These Dreams of Mine. The CD, recorded live locally, has been selling well. It has ranked among the top sellers at the Record Exchange since its release. Coffey says his favorite song is the opening track, "Long Before the Light."
He's hopeful that he and Evett will have another CD to release sometime next year. At some point in the future, they may expand beyond their current duo and maybe add a drummer. Evett has a thriving music career of his own, so will they continue to work together? Ned tells him, "As long as you keep asking me to play on your stuff, I'm gonna say 'yes.'"
Coffey plans to keep playing, too. "I can't imagine I'll ever stop playing music," he says. It is understood that he'll keep writing, too. That's just what you'd expect from a songwriter-singer.
Coffey and Evett, Pengilly's, Sat., Jan. 26, 9 p.m., BillCoffey.com.