The Cowsills In Magazines

A Moveable, Musical Feast
Get to know the many musical families of Billy Cowsill. by peter north
May 12, 2006
Swerve Magazine



Cowsill joined this Vancouver-based band in the mid-'70s. Blue Northern's core included veterans of Vancouver's country-rock scene, including the Cement City Cowboys. The self-titled, four song e.p. (Polydor, 1980) was produced by Cowsill in 1979. The e.p. includes a Cowsill original titled "Chain Ya' Down" which doesn't appear on the full-length album, Blue Northern (Polydor, 1981), which stands as one of the best country-rock discs ever recorded in Canada.


Three discs provide a comprehensive overview to Cowsill's formative years. His growing confidence as a producer and writer is evident on Captain Sad and his Ship of Fools (MGM, 1968), which featured one of the group's three chart-topping hits, "Indian Lake." Amidst all the audience screaming on the live set, The Cowsills In Concert (MGM 19697 Razor & Tie re-issue 1994), the group confidently knocks off some Beatles material which would remain one of Billy's touchstones throughout his career. "The Best of the Cowsills/20th Century Masters" (Universal, 2001) includes the triumvirate of Cowsills hits: "Indian Lake," "The Rain, The Park & Other Things" and "Hair," as well as a rare Billy solo track, "When Everybody's Here" from his 1970 release Nervous Breakthrough. Sign a petition to induct the Cowsills into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at silverthreads/history/halloffame.html.


After the break-up of

Blue Northern, Cowsill worked for a few years fronting a retro-rock 'n' roll outfit called Trainwreck with guitarist Lindsay Mitchell from Prism and upright bassist Elmar Spanier. Cowsill and Spanier also worked as a duo before being introduced to singer-songwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, who became the perfect foil for Cowsill. With J.B. Johnson on drums, the quartet became The Blue Shadows. Hatcher and Cowsill proved to be a prolific writing team and the two had production chops to spare. Great hooks, exceptional vocals—both leads and harmonies—were their calling cards. Standout tracks from On The Floor Of Heaven (Bumstead/Sony 1993) are the macho "Coming On Strong," the effectively understated "If I Were You," the Hatcher-penned "Think On It" and "Deliver Me," and "The Embers." On the follow-up Lucky To Me (Sony 1995), Spanier had been replaced by Barry Muir and the collection doesn't have the same overall sparkle as the debut. Still, the title track with its Mersey Beat dressing and "I Know," both of which find Cowsill and Hatcher sharing the lead vocal mic, stand as two numbers that can be pitted against the great singing teams of our time.


When Cowsill arrived

in Calgary in the late '90s, he gravitated to working with Tim Leacock, Ross Watson and Steve Pineo. It was back to the classic rock 'n' roll songbooks that inspired Cowsill from Day One, and audiences couldn't get enough of takes on everything from Marty Robbins and Elvis Presley to The Beatles and Stones to Johnny Rivers and Hank Williams. Miles Wilkinson was called in from Nashville to engineer and co-produce a few nights of remote recordings in the funky venue known as the Mecca Cafe. A real madhouse, bare-bones music with full-bodied arrangements and rabid audiences were the perfect equation for a Co-Dependents session. Live at the Mecca Volume 1 (Indelible Music/ 2002) became a runaway favourite. The disc also finds Cowsill reprising "Vagabond," which had become an audience favourite. On Live at the Mecca Volume2 (Indelible Music/2003) Cowsill lights into tunes from the books of Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline and John Lennon with fantastic results.


Live From the Crystal Ballroom (Indelible Music) is vintage Cowsill, who torches the joint with his trademark repetoire of classics that he held hostage like few other singers. "I'm Movin' On," "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Heart Full of Gold" are highlights in this set. Wrote Tom Babin in the Herald's review of the disc, "Years from his Partridge Family-inspiring beginnings, he found himself opening a gig for k.d. lang in the swanky Palliser. With a baby-faced guitar protege soon to be known as Colin James in his band, Cowsill tossed all the branches of the American music tree—country, bluegrass, blues, rock and rockabilly— into a heap and sparked it with his weathered voice. And there at the back was a cassette tape picking it all up."


Sorrow Bound: Hank

Williams Re-Examined (Ruby Moon Records, 2006) is a self-explanatory, recently released two-disc set produced by Tim Williams. Williams, Jane Hawley, Stewart MacDougall, Tom Phillips and Cowsill careen through the Hank song-book on the first disc with Cowsill handling "You Win Again," "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Hey Good Lookin'". On the second disc, which features originals from the participants that were "inspired by the spirit of Hank," Cowsill delivers on "I'm A Little Bit Blue," and "Hotter Than Fire," which finally made it to tape years after he wrote it. The disc also includes MacDougall's recording of "It's Over When Somebody Wins," which he co-wrote with Cowsill. Billy's haunting and somewhat prophetic "It's Over Now" closes the album.

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