"Americana doesn't get much finer," declared Q Magazine in its review of Jeffrey Foucault's Horse Latitudes, which the British music mag hailed for mixing "the country of Gene Clark" with "the understated menace of Springsteen's Nebraska."
Five years later, the Wisconsin-raised singer-songwriter, who now lives in western Massachusetts' Berkshire Hills, is still a critic's favorite. A musician's musician, he's also attracted the attention of luminaries like The Eagles' Don Henley, who, after hearing the song "Everybody's Famous" on Sirius XM radio, took to covering it live.
Meanwhile, legendary Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks — who sat in with Foucault and his band at a November release party for the recent Salt as Wolves album — first heard Foucault perform on a long-running L.A. radio show called Folk Scene.
"He heard the show and he wrote me an email, and I thought it was one of my friends just screwing with me," says Foucault. "And then I realized that none of my friends were smart enough to create a proxy email address. And I was like, well this might actually be Van Dyke Parks. He knew I was working on an album of songs by John Prine — it was essentially just a side-project, like a present for my dad — and he was like, 'Do you want string arrangements for it?'"
The Prine project was already in post-production, so Parks instead played accordion, piano and Hammond organ on the subsequent Horse Latitudes album. Foucault still recalls the look on the faces of his bandmembers, who were all accomplished musicians, when he broke the news to them in the studio.
"I was like, "Yeah, so Van Dyke Parks is gonna come play. And they were all just terrified. Any musician who knows their 20th-century music knows who he is. But I do believe that when you're going into the studio, it's always good to have a wild card. Something that you really don't understand or control. Something that'll take everybody a little bit out of their comfort zone."
Foucault also values the element of chance in live shows. An original singer-songwriter who's been known to do the occasional Neil Young or Townes Van Zandt cover, he'll be performing as a duo with Morphine drummer Billy Conway on his current tour, which includes concerts at Pueblo's Songbird Cellars and Colorado Springs' Friends House.
The shows are stripped-down affairs, with Foucault playing a down-tuned Silvertone guitar through a five-watt amp, while Conway accompanies him on cymbal, snare and suitcase.
Despite the minimalist instrumentation, Foucault says the two musicians have developed a shared intuition over the last few years that leaves room for surprises.
"If I play a certain note that Billy doesn't like, I'll keep playing it on purpose just to see what he does," Foucault laughs. "That's the beauty of playing in any ensemble situation; it's not a rote recitation of something you already know how to do.
"The conversation between musicians is fascinating," he adds. "I played solo for a long time, and a conversation with yourself is not super-satisfying. It essentially just ends up becoming a conversation about your shortcomings."
While Salt as Wolves reached No. 7 on Billboard's blues chart, it's an album that could just as easily be categorized as folk, country, rock, and all or none of the above. Highlights include "Blues for Jessie Mae" — an homage to Mississippi hill country artist Jessie Mae Hemphill — as well as a cover of her signature "Jesus Will Fix It for You."
But the album's most striking track is "Hurricane Lamp," a song Foucault found himself unable to record for the better part of a decade.
"I have seldom written as open and straightforward a lyric," he admits. "Basically it has only like two metaphors in it, you know? I'm not hiding behind language at all."
The song is directed toward a former girlfriend with whom Foucault had been corresponding while she underwent cancer treatment. "We had been super-close and almost got married," he says of the relationship. "She was having a hard time, and we were sort of doing the post-mortem that we had never gotten around to doing. We were just doing it ten years later."
A hurricane lamp — for those who didn't grow up in rural areas like the Wisconsin town where Foucault grew up — is a kerosene lantern with weather-proof glass that protects the inner flame from the outside elements. "I was worried that she would lose what's best about her, a certain sort of naïve beauty and openness to the world, which you hate to see extinguished in anyone."
As personal as the song's lyrics are, the cause for the long delay in its release was as much musical as anything else.
"It didn't make it onto the record for something like eight years, just because the song didn't work. I played it live three or four times, but not in the sort of gentle finger-style version on the record. It was more of a four-on-the-floor rhythmic version. And every time I played it, I thought, 'You know, there's something here, but I'm not getting it. So I would put it away."
It was while recording at a studio in Minneapolis that producer Bo Ramsey came up with the solution. "I think it was on Day Three that we took a shot at it, and played it in the way I knew how to play it. And everybody was like, 'Huh well, that's kinda cool, but it's not that cool.' And later Bo told me how Greg [Brown] wrote a song and it was the same deal. It wasn't working until he just backed off and played a real simple two or three finger-style thing. And it got the tune to settle down and sit in the pocket."
Dialing back the arrangement also placed more focus on the song's sparse lyrics, which are bound to strike a chord with anyone grieving the loss, or near loss, of a loved one. But there was also the risk of crossing the line between moving and maudlin.
"You know, 'Keep your light inside' could be a corny line if it was delivered in the wrong spirit, or in too sugary a way," says Foucault. "And one of the things I love about this band, which," he adds with a laugh, "is like three-quarters Midwesterners, is their emotional and musical restraint. They can deliver the heaviest tune without ever tipping their hat, without ever showing too much leg.
"You never want a singer or a band to emote on behalf of the song and tell you what to feel. I hate that shit. I want it to be an open experience, for somebody to feel whatever they're gonna feel."