Cult classic albums are a rare thing in Canadian music. On the Floor of Heaven, the 1993 debut record by the long-defunct the Blue Shadows, has earned that status, and it is now being given a much-deserved new lease of life.
Earlier this month, its original label, Bumstead Records, reissued the long out of print disc in Canada, affording it a deluxe two-CD treatment. It received the same treatment in the U.S. on Tuesday (June 15), marking the first time the album has been available south of the border.
That is especially pleasing to guitarist/singer/songwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, who formed the band with the late Billy Cowsill in Vancouver in the early '90s.
"I always longed for the band to get exposed in the U.S., especially the southern states," Hatcher tells Exclaim! in a recent interview. "I had a strong feeling that if the record had been properly promoted there and in places like Japan, Australia and the UK, places with old-style country fans, then I think it'd have gone over really well."
Upon its release in Canada, On the Floor of Heaven didn't exactly break sales records. Band manager and head of Bumstead Records Larry Wanagas (who also managed k.d. lang at the time) tells Exclaim!, "There was some airplay and a Juno nomination, but the road was where the Blue Shadows lived and made fans. They did sell a respectable number of CDs at the time as well."
The album's retro honky tonk style was at odds with the prevailing new country trend of the day, something that made securing an international release problematic.
"It was not for lack of trying," says Wanagas. "You have to remember, there wasn't a solid 'alt country' movement for us to tap into at the time. We now need to create a demand through targeted publicity and good old 'word of mouth.'"
Wanagas explains that he'd been planning a reissue for quite some time, but didn't want to rush it out after Cowsill's death in 2006, a full decade after the Blue Shadows broke up.
"I just wanted to wait a bit after Billy died, even though many fans and friends were on me right away to do so," he says. "As much as I respected Billy's talents and considered him a friend, the Blue Shadows was also about Jeff Hatcher and I felt that he would get lost in the rush to reissue an album right after Billy died."
Hatcher is pleased that the current interest in his band's material proves its longevity.
"The songs were never intended to be of the moment," he explains. "All of us in the band [rounded out by drummer J.B. Johnson and bassists Elmar Spanier, then Barry Muir] plus management [Wanagas and Dave Chesney] were very confident it was very strong on its own — and that it could have found an audience anytime in the previous 30 years, or the next 30. I think a few years earlier or later the Blue Shadows might have caught a wave, but you can never know these things."
He recalls the sessions for the self-produced On the Floor of Heaven as being "very smooth. We were playing a lot live, and that shortens up time. One interesting memory is that part of the album was taken from demo sessions we did at Larry's demo studio, an eight-track reel-to-reel studio in the back of the Bumstead office in Vancouver. They had as good a quality as the studio recordings of the rest of the album done at Bullfrog, itself a good studio."
Post Blue Shadows, Hatcher basically retired from the music business. "I've been working as a music therapist since 2000, and have hardly played since the Blue Shadows days," he says. "The Blue Shadows royalties put me through school. I did a Bachelor of Music Therapy and then a masters program in psychology at Simon Fraser."
Recently he has become more musically active, reuniting with former comrades Don and Paul Hatcher (yes, his brothers) and David Briggs. They had played together in the Fuse and later as Jeffrey Hatcher and the Big Beat, prior to the formation of the Blue Shadows.
"I'm playing with those guys again, here in Winnipeg," he explains. "We're not performing much, aside from private parties, but we are writing, recording and uploading material as the Hatcher Briggs Collective. It's very satisfying, with equal input from my brother Don, who is also the producer and engineer, and Dave Briggs."
Hatcher reports that they're planning to release an album of material this summer or fall, while he is also planning to head to Nashville for some cowriting sessions.
He has also seen more of his songs surface on disc recently, courtesy of former musical partner Wendy Bird. The pair led Vancouver-based band the Sugar Beats during and shortly after the Blue Shadows era, and Bird recently released an album comprising her versions of Hatcher songs.
"The record's called Natural Wonder, and it's lovely," says Hatcher. "I had nothing to do with it, but I am thrilled by it."
Contributors to the recording include Elvis Costello, Barney Bentall, Colin James, Craig Northey (the Odds), and Adam Levy (Norah Jones).
Hatcher is confident that his comrade Billy Cowsill would have been thrilled at the reissue. "He told me back in Blue Shadows days that he was happier with our recorded output than anything he'd been able to do with the Cowsills [the American family pop group that topped the charts in the '60s]."
On the Floor of Heaven is out now on Bumstead Records.