Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Blue Shadows' slice of country-rock genius reissued

The Blue Shadows featured the chilling harmonies and brilliant songwriting of Billy Cowsill (far left) and Jeffrey Hatcher (second from right).

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 23, 2010


At the end of a sweaty set, while packing up on stage, Jeffrey Hatcher plucked on his guitar the melody of an unfinished song.

“Don’t finish it on your own,” replied Billy Cowsill. “I want a piece of that puppy.”

When Mr. Hatcher arrived for the next night’s show, he told his bandmate he’d finished the tune. Mr. Cowsill, he remembers, “sagged almost completely onto the stage floor.” He was quickly told it was a joke.

The pair worked on the song, which came to be titled “If It Ain’t Rockin’.” It appeared on the debut album of The Blue Shadows. “On the Floor of Heaven” was hailed as a slice of country-rock genius on its release in 1993.

The recording earned praise for a quartet who described their own sound as “Hank (Williams) goes to the Cavern Club,” as though the honky-tonk master was sitting in with the Beatles in Liverpool. Others suggested Cowsill and Hatcher sounded like the Everly Brothers performing Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The album, released by a major label, received terrific reviews, but little airplay and few sales. The sound was said to be too rock for country radio and too country for rock radio.

The release eventually went out of print, though its reputation grew as time passed. The clever songwriting and the jangly guitars made it an alternative-country masterpiece.

Now, 17 years after its original release and four years after Mr. Cowsill’s death, Bumstead Records has re-issued the album with previously unheard outtakes and cover songs.

“I talked to him before he died, and he said he really wanted it to come out again,” Mr. Hatcher said. “He called it the thing he was proudest of in all his professional career.”

The collaboration of Cowsill and Hatcher is one of the more unlikely pairings in Canadian music. One was a hard-living former child star with a reputation for unpredictable behaviour, the other a hard-working songwriter with a reputation for craftsmanship.

Mr. Cowsill was the lead singer for the eponymous family band that was the inspiration for the television series “The Partridge Family.” The Cowsills had three Top 10 hits on the Billboard charts in their American homeland, hitting No. 1 in Canada in 1967 with “The Rain, The Park and Other Things.” Only the Beatles’ “Get Back” stopped “Hair” from also reaching the top of the charts here.

The Cowsills appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other variety programs, their every haircut detailed by the likes of “16” and “Tiger Beat” magazines.

Billy left the band after a falling out with his father, launching an unsuccessful solo career. He wound up drinking a bar dry in Texas with his cronies before coming to Canada. For a time, he drove trucks over ice roads in the far north.

He eventually settled in Vancouver, where the cognoscenti sought out one of the most distinct voices in pop music.

By the time Hatcher caught up to him, Mr. Cowsill was fronting a combo whose schtick it was to perform requests. They called it the Dead Man’s Set. If someone shouted out the name of a living performer, he’d say, “Sorry, man we only do dead guys. As soon as he’s on the slab we’ll be all over him like a cheap suit.”

Born in Winnipeg, the son of a jazz trumpeter who became a denturist to support his young family, Mr. Hatcher earned critical praise and flirted with commercial success with such bands as The Six, The Fuse, and Jeffrey Hatcher and the Big Beat. His first two shows paired with Mr. Cowsill ended with the latter clubbing obnoxious drunks over the head with guitars.

The Blue Shadows formed in the early 1990s with Jay Johnson on drums and Elmer Spanier on bass, soon replaced by Barry Muir. Mr. Cowsill himself once described the band as “three vegetarians and a junkie.”

Chronic pain led to his becoming addicted to painkillers, leading to odd eating and sleeping schedules, as well as a certain unpredictability in behaviour.

This odd-couple songwriting duo, who looked the Grinch Who Stole Christmas paired with a choirboy, one straight as a razor the other known for indulgence, cooperated on crafting remarkable songs that can be seen as beginning a new chapter in Americana music.

“People often said we were opposites,” Mr. Hatcher said. “We actually had lots in common. On the outside, it seemed like Billy had a chaotic life and I seemed to be together. I think we had a similar sense of humour. He knew how to laugh at himself, which a lot of troubled people don’t have such an easy time with.”

Oddly enough, they shared an interest in science and psychology, an abhorrence of sports, and encyclopedic knowledge of Depression-era show biz.

“How many people have laughs over George Kaufman and Moss Hart? We were very different but found a lot in common.”

Those of us who had the good fortune to catch a live show of the Blue Shadows back in the day knew we were enjoying something special.

Another album followed, again trailblazing a new sound in country, but a mass audience did not evolve and the band broke up in 1996. Mr. Cowsill later moved to Calgary, where he performed with a group called the Co-Dependents. Suffering from emphysema, osteoporosis, and a hormonal imbalance, he died four years ago. The news of his passing reached his siblings as they gathered in Rhode Island for a memorial service to another brother, Barry, who was killed during Hurricane Katrina.

“When he was at his best he was a beautiful guy,” Mr. Hatcher said. “When he wasn’t at his best, it wasn’t personal necessarily. He just wasn’t doing very well.”

Mr. Hatcher later completed studies at colleges in the Lower Mainland, gaining a master’s degree from Simon Fraser University. He has returned to his hometown, where he is a music therapist who works with young people, some with brain injuries and others with fetal alcohol syndrome, at a former orphanage.

His audience is smaller than ever, but perhaps his music has never been more meaningful.


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Unknown said...

My sister got me into country-rock. I love it! I haven't been able to stop listening to it for years now!
Shelly Slader |