Bill Coffey Steadies His Gaze on the Horizon

The local musician on his new CD


Bill Coffey's office overlooks the Boise River--his view peppered by leafless trees and the snow-topped Foothills obscured by a haze of fog. His day job as business architect at local media company Wirestone bears no resemblance to the Coffey on the cover of his most recent release, Cemetery Skyline Rose, which shows him in jeans holding a guitar.

"Music is the most beautiful art form, but it's a terrible way to raise money," said Coffey. "Most people who have day jobs who play music think, 'God, I wish I could quit my day job.' I really don't wish that."

Coffey loves both of his jobs. When he isn't working in his treehouse office, he tends to his wife and two kids, ages 10 and 14. While music doesn't pay Coffey's mortgage, it affords him the opportunity to do what he loves.

"I don't have to feed myself from music money," said Coffey. "I don't know if I'd want to run away and join the circus if I had the option."

Yet music has been Coffey's second career for decades, starting with his Ventura, Calif., band the Mudheads. Shaggy-haired and swathed in plaid, the young foursome played rock tracks inspired by '60s and '70s British invasion bands and psychedelia groups of the Woodstock years. It was a roots-rock garage band befitting the beachside locale. Music came to Coffey early on.

"When I was a kid, maybe 10 years old, my parents took me to see a symphony orchestra," Coffey remembered. "I said, 'I want a violin.' I wasn't very good at it. I'm not a formally trained musician."

Coffey's first love was theater. He quickly got used to being on stage, performing and engaging with an audience. He began singing in the school choir, meeting friends in local bands and providing vocals. He eventually picked up a guitar.

"It was instantly a more natural fit for me than theater. I felt like, 'Oh, these guys are way cooler,'" he said. "These are my people."

Coffey is a gregarious guy, his attire and attitude exude cool. His graying, longer hair, semi-casual jeans and button-up shirt are every bit the picture of an aging musician.

In two decades, Coffey has become a staple of the Boise music scene. He has collaborated with Curtis Stigers, Dan Costello, a.k.a Belle, Audio Moonshine, Hillfolk Noir and many others. After moving to town in 1992, he quickly made his name as a solo act before connecting with longtime collaborator Ned Evett.

"Coffey writes a lot of great songs, so much so that he once performed around town for an entire month, playing only his own material, without repeating a song," said Evett.

Together, the duo created the album These Dreams of Mine in 2007, while both were working day jobs at Wirestone.

"Bill is very savvy and knows how to manage the musical resources at his disposal when making an album," said Evett. "The genius is in the way he keeps the manager hat from spoiling the art."

When Evett relocated to Nashville, Tenn., Coffey assembled a new cadre of musicians.

"I've worked with a lot of different people over the years," he said. "It's not that I deliberately try to have sort of a revolving cast of characters, but I've learned over the years that it's best for me to not get pinned down to one lineup."

To keep his lineup open, Coffey said he takes a page from baseball, another passion of his. He's created a "depth chart" of local talent, so that if his bassist is busy for a set, he can call up another guy to fill in. When he meets a new musician he might play with, he shares a repository of online files via Dropbox: "Here, do your homework," he joked.

"If I've got a gig, I've got my first-call people, the second wave and the third wave," said Coffey. "The more people that know my material, the better."

Lately, the Cash Money Cousins are Coffey's go-to guys. They were the group he worked with to create Cemetery Skyline Rose. Chris Galli provided electric acoustic and double bass; "Shaky Dave" Manion played steel and electric guitar; Bernie Reilly chimed in on harmony vocals and banjo, guitar and accordion; Thomas Paul played mandolin, keys and vocals; Casey Miller provided percussion and co-produced the album; Frim Fram Four's Jonah Shue provided fiddle and mandolin; and jazz legend Curtis Stigers dropped smooth tenor sax to mellow out the record.

"The reason I like working with Bill is, for lack of a better term, he has his stuff together," said Paul. "I have to tip my hat to him more than anyone else, because he knows what he wants."

Paul has played with the Cash Money Cousins for almost four years. He said Coffey's frantic behind-the-scenes work makes studio days a breeze.

"It's weird when you spend too much time focused on something. You don't have any perspective on how it turned out. A year from now, I'll be able to say whether it was any good," Coffey said.