Medford's Black Record Collection was an idea before it was a band. Matt Foster and Michael Davis finished recording their first album, the 2005 song cycle The Flattville Murder Album, before they'd even performed in public together. The disc was something of a revelation when it was released: an ambitious and accomplished 70-minute concept album by an almost altogether unknown local duo, stitching original country and folk songs next to traditional ballads like "Tom Dooley" and "Omie Wise." Within months, they were playing steadily around town and climbing toward the top of the local music scene.
Now, five years later, all the promise of that debut is fading with Foster's departure this month for Austin, Texas, where his girlfriend will be attending graduate school for the next year and a half. The band, which now includes bassist Forrest Simpson, is taking its last bow with a couple of farewell shows this weekend.
"I'll definitely remember the origin of it as a real collaborative idea, a real partnering," Davis says. "I think it was all genuine and came from a genuine place. I don't think we ever tried, at least not too much, to make it fit any mold or be something it was supposed to be. I think most of the time it got to be what it was. I feel good about that—anytime you can say something felt genuine, that's a good thing."
MBRC followed The Flattville Murder Album in 2008 with Eccentricity NOS, a more eclectic disc that incorporated an updated country-rock sound and electric guitars alongside fiddle and mandolin. (Bassist Clint Mullican and drummer Dave Whitaker had been added to the lineup.) The reality of being in a band clashed with the original idea Foster and Davis had shared around this time, stalling what had been consistent progress up until then.
"After the second album we should have been getting out of town more and gearing up to do the touring thing," Davis says. "I've always worked a regular nine-to-five job. I've liked my jobs, but those sorts of things don't jive as well with music. That was a difficulty on my end, and then the bass player and drummer we had at that time were students and couldn't leave their classes. So we couldn't get out and string dates together like would have been the best trajectory for a band at that point. But hell, who knows what the music industry is anymore, and do you have to do that? Do you have to get out there in a van and bust your ass and live like a rat for three months or six months at a time in order to make it? And what is making it anymore? Nobody knows, still, and I sure as hell didn't. You live life. It was fun to play, and we were getting steady gigs in town. Here we are now, so maybe it's inconsequential anyway."
Foster broke the news to his bandmates back in May, but an official announcement about the band's future wasn't made until December. Davis says he never considered keeping the band going without Foster.
"I kind of knew that it was coming, honestly," Davis says. "I knew if she got into a program that was out of town it would be real likely that Foster would be going somewhere else. That doesn't bother me in the least, if somebody's going to be doing that. If it was me, I'd be making the same decision."
Foster's not quite committed to calling the present circumstances a break-up: "It's going to be a year and a half, so we're looking at it as a hiatus, an indefinite hiatus," he says.
But Davis does have a new project in the works, a band called the Wandering Plows that he says will highlight the rock-oriented songs he's been writing for the last several years. He'll also be performing regularly with singer/songwriter Roman Reese, who's returned to Knoxville from Washington, D.C. and formed a backing band called the Cardinal Sin.
For now, though, both Foster and Davis are focused on this weekend's shows, which they promise will be a smaller-scale version of the Band's Last Waltz concert.
"It's kind of weird to think about the mechanics of the actual show," Davis says. "Each song that goes by, it's like, ‘Well, I'm not going to play that for a while. Did we do a decent job at it?'"