Even before his heart attack last fall, Madison singer/songwriter "Robert J." Conaway had begun to understand that only a few things in life really matter.
"I have all a man needs to have," Conaway sang on the title track to Beautiful Blur, one of two new albums he'd prepared for release last December. "I have my wife and my kids and my songs...."
But five months after recovering from heart surgery, Conaway says he won't take another day for granted.
"It gets right to the nerve when you're lying on a table in the emergency room and they say you've had a heart attack. It hit me like a ton of bricks. All I could think about was my family and all the songs I hadn't finished yet."
On April 4 at the Brink Lounge, Conaway will finally celebrate the belated release of Beautiful Blur and a companion recording, The Revenge of the Rowdy Prairie Dogs.
Given the medical events he's recently endured, Conaway says it's a party he'll savor. "When you find out in that passing moment that you could have been gone, you appreciate every hour more for the rest of your life."
Conaway, 56, has been a staple of the Madison music scene since he moved here in 1982. He's played in Boys Town, the Moon Gypsies, the Robert J. Project, the Rowdy Prairie Dogs and the Lucas Cates Band, among others. One measure of the impact he's had on Madison music: He played 518 blues jams over 10 years at Morgan's, the east-side tavern that became Wonders Pub.
Beautiful Blur and The Revenge of the Rowdy Prairie Dogs distinguish the two musical styles Conaway masters. Beautiful Blur highlights his talents as a singer-songwriter, and Revenge showcases his work fronting a country-rock band.
"I started putting these demos down in January of 2007," says Conaway. "I had enough material and thought I could easily make two records. I considered a double-album, but then I thought, 'Maybe I should release two different CDs on the same day. Maybe that's something that would get noticed.'"
Conaway liked the chance to make recordings with two musical voices.
"The country songs give me a chance to be goofier and sillier. Beautiful Blur is more heartland rock and more personal."
The rebellious twang of Revenge is exemplified by the lead track, "Rebel Domino."
"I'm stepping out of this line; can't keep following the blind," Conaway sings over toe-tapping, improvised guitar lines.
The Rowdy Prairie Dogs features former Georgia Satellites drummer Mauro Magellan on drums and Gomers member Dave Adler on keys.
Both discs have been released on PopBomb Records, the label Conaway started two years ago. PopBomb is also home to Madison songwriter Lucas Cates. Conaway produced Cates' debut and hopes to use PopBomb as a vehicle for helping other local musicians develop their skills.
Conaway says the events of the past five months have helped him realize that songwriting is "the essence of who I am."
It's also brought new meaning to the chorus of "Beautiful Blur": "I was doubting the road map, second guessing every turn/Now it's time to forget about all that, and just let this engine burn."
Get ready to cruise this Friday night.