Blaze Foley's Lost Muscle Shoals Recordings
Cult songman keeps thwarting his own success – even posthumously
By Doug Freeman, Fri., May 5, 2017
When Blaze Foley was shot in a house at 706 W. Mary and died during surgery at Brackenridge Hospital hours later on Feb. 1, 1989, at age 39, he left little behind in the world save for his songs – and many of their recordings had already been lost.
Born Michael David Fuller, the Arkansan iconoclast idolized his friend and peer Townes Van Zandt, sowing a career mired in substance abuse and self-sabotage (revisit "A Walking Contradiction," Dec. 24, 1999). His output received little notice during his lifetime, save for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's covering "If I Could Only Fly" on joint 1987 LP Seashores of Old Mexico. Yet Foley's compositional gifts earned him the respect of his Eighties Austin peers, even as his infamous unruliness got him barred from most stages in town.
In a richly weathered baritone, his songs ached with tenderness ("Faded Loves and Memories"), rolling playful melodies against deceptively poignant lyrics ("Clay Pigeons") and political screeds ("Springtime in Uganda"), while moaning forlornly ("Cold, Cold World"). Since his death, covers have transpired from John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Avett Brothers, and Ryan Bingham. Foley even inspired the Kings of Leon's new single "Reverend."
Next year, Foley ascends to the big screen in Austin native Ethan Hawke's biopic, based on the memoir of his longtime partner Sybil Rosen (see "Faded Love," Oct. 31, 2008). The film follows Kevin Triplett's thorough 2011 documentary, Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah. Both build on a dearth of official recordings the songwriter left behind.
Foley's recorded output, like his career, is littered with missed opportunities, cruel twists of fate, and reckless disregard. An early recording deal yielded a single of "If I Could Only Fly," but tanked after the talent splurged on carousing in NYC with Van Zandt. Another recording effort went belly-up following the theft of its master tapes from Foley's car.
Most notorious remain the 1984 sessions recorded at Broadway Sound Studio in Sheffield, Ala. Backed by top Muscle Shoals players and professional production, the album could've sent Foley's career on a different trajectory. Yet when the executive producer became embroiled in a drug bust, only a few hundred copies of the LP survived the ensuing fiasco, its masters assumed either lost or confiscated.
Rainbows & Ridges
Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit watchdog organization, resides unassumingly in an apartment complex off 18th Street near UT. Sparse, haphazard at best, the office looks either half moved into or cleared out in a rush. In a back room, TPJ Director Craig McDonald and Tom Tobin stuff envelopes with Blaze Foley CDs. Over the past two decades, the lifelong friends have done more than anyone to resurface Foley's recordings through their Lost Art Records.
"We have very limited time and resources," admits McDonald. "We're only able to do something every three or four years, so it's really just about getting the art out there so other people can enjoy it. Not a bad hobby."
Though the two didn't arrive in Austin until the Nineties, they'd heard of Foley via other Texas songwriters and his championing by local radio personality Larry Monroe. Tobin sought out the only available recording: John Casner's live cassette of Foley performing two nights at the Austin Outhouse a month before he was killed.
After meeting with their subject's mother and her attorney, the pair put up "a couple hundred bucks" and pressed CDs. Interest built steadily as the part-time archivists unearthed more recordings. Lost Art followed 1999's Live at the Austin Outhouse with more Casner recordings on 2004's Oval Room, and two years later put out the acclaimed Cold, Cold World, recordings local guitarist-troubadour-producer Gurf Morlix retained from his early friendship with Foley. Sittin' by the Road in 2010, from a homemade 1977 tape the songwriter had given a friend in Georgia, and the soundtrack to Duct Tape Messiah also appeared, the label working closely with Foley's sister, Marsha Weldon, who won rights to the estate in 2005.
Despite the growing cache, the Muscle Shoals album maintains holy grail status. A soulful R&B flavor folding into his country croon, Foley's voice is clear and powerful in the bounce of "Girl Scout Cookies" and moaning "Darlin'." Both "The Way You Smile" and "Rainbows and Ridges" evince a radio-ready polish far removed from its singer's lo-fi home demos.
The eponymous LP still passes through used record stores occasionally or surfaces on eBay, prices ranging from $150-300, but otherwise has been unavailable and unheard. This week, Lost Art releases The Lost Muscle Shoals Recordings in partnership with record emporium End of an Ear, which will handle the vinyl release, and renowned preservationists Light in the Attic handling distribution.
"The master tapes have been gone, so we had to transfer it from a pristine copy of the vinyl," says McDonald, who worked with local producer Mark Hallman to remaster the recordings. "The legend is that the guys who funded the project were arrested for some drug deal and everything was confiscated. So even though some 500 copies of the album were produced, and Blaze got away with maybe 100 or so copies of them, it was never distributed. That's the story we think.
"Always hard to come by all the details when you're dealing with Blaze's story."
Binge Drinking & Biker Speed
"Well, I own it. I have the master tapes and signed contracts. I own the songs as well."
David Johnson, former owner of Broadway Sound Studio in Alabama, is surprised to learn the Blaze Foley album he produced is coming out. Although his studio shuttered in the late Eighties and Johnson went on to become executive director of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, he claims rights to the masters and recordings.
"You couldn't forget that session," he laughs. "He was so unique, probably one of the more talented people I'd ever worked with as far as his ability to write great songs from a whole different perspective. I don't know if he was manageable, though. The music business is a business, and there's a certain amount of responsibility you have to take other than just singing and playing."
By all accounts, drama shrouded the sessions. For starters, they were funded by Bill French, who was part of a cocaine smuggling operation from South America into rural airports in Tennessee and Alabama. Foley, meanwhile, convinced Van Zandt to join him and as the latter recalled to Larry Monroe on 1997 album Documentary, his host's excess was too much for even him to handle.
"They came to town, Blaze and Townes, and I took them to a motel room," remembers Johnson. "Before I could even get back to the studio, the police locked them up for tearing apart the room."
Gurf Morlix, flown in to play bass, recalls similar drug-induced chaos.
"Blaze was binge drinking, and doing a bunch of biker speed," offers Morlix by email. "I was only there for the first few days. Blaze was fairly well wasted the whole time, and I remember thinking his singing wasn't anywhere near as good as it should have been. Decades of hard living packed into the past year or two."
Johnson's management countered Foley's self-destruction, so the LP was manufactured. Shortly thereafter, Feds arrested French, who struck a deal by testifying against his partners. The album languished in a warehouse until Foley, as Triplett's documentary explains, journeyed to Alabama and carried away several boxes, which he employed locally as barter for drinks.
Although Johnson hasn't yet provided proof of ownership to the material, McDonald reached out to him after being notified of his assertion. Lost Art claims rights to the songs from Weldon and the Foley estate, but that wouldn't necessarily cover recordings themselves if Johnson produces contracts. Even posthumously, Foley continues thwarting his own success.
"That's the legacy of Blaze Foley," laughs Casner. "On the other hand, when the people that knew him and love him gather, we all feel to a great extent that he got what he wanted. He's a legend now."
End of an Ear marks the release of The Lost Muscle Shoals Recordings vinyl with a Gurf Morlix in-store on Sunday, May 7, 4pm. For more on Merle Haggard’s love of Blaze Foley visit austinchronicle.com/daily/music.