Why had I never heard of the Blue Shadows? The question arose after the package carrying a review copy of On the Floor of Heaven arrived in the mail and I'd put the first disc -- this is a two-CD set -- on the player. I found the answers in the accompanying promotional material. It turns out that the band hasn't existed since 1996. Billy Cowsill, co-founder and (usually) lead vocalist, died 10 years later. Disc No. 1 is of a 1993 Canadian release that never found an American distributor, and disc No. 2 consists of material that 'til now had languished in the vaults. In short, this is a reissue and a labor of love.
In a just world, which this manifestly is not, the Vancouver-based Blue Shadows would have been stars -- if not of Top 40 "country" (already far gone on a steep downhill skid, which continues), then of Americana. Unfortunately, that genre, more open to approaches at once rooted and creative, hadn't been thought up quite yet. Thus, notwithstanding their many strengths and instant appeal to just about any who heard what they were up to, the Blue Shadows collapsed into the black hole that is critics' darling and cult favorite.
Mostly, to be frank, I am no fan of country-rock, most of which -- in my judgment at least -- fails on either side of the equation. The Blue Shadows made the most of it, however, and I've never heard it better. Theirs was a seamless, robust fusion of country, pop, rockabilly and rock 'n' roll, wed to the very strong songwriting of Cowsill (acoustic guitar) and Jeffrey Hatcher (electric guitars) and to heavenly neo-hillbilly harmonies. If Cowsill/Hatcher's lyrics aren't always profound (though they're decent enough), their melodies move and soar. They remind me of what used to float out of AM radios half a century ago, a tuneful guitar-pop music that spoke directly to the most elemental emotions. Even so, the Blue Shadows were only occasional imitators; what they set out to do was to make something of their own out of found musical materials. They succeeded. There are no second-rate songs or performances here.
Yet the two discs do not replicate each other. The second, consisting of studio work cut between 1992 and 1996, is closer to pure honkytonk, which is where the Shadows started and where, I infer, they ended. The CD closes with an intense reading of the late Bobby Harden's harrowing "Hell Stays Open All Night Long," learned from a George Jones recording. The opening cut -- the Cowsill/Hatcher composition "A Little Bit Lonesome, A Little Bit Blue" -- is possibly the most derivative piece, virtually indistinguishable except for the steel guitar from what could pass as an early Everly Brothers release. Perhaps it was intended as a tribute. I do know it is not hard to listen to.
Inevitably, critics' commentary on the Shadows mentions Gram Parsons and treats the band as carrying the long-deceased Parsons's hippie-country approach forward. That's not fair. The Shadows are more consistent, and their best songs are largely superior, and they sing a whole lot more convincingly. On the Floor of Heaven is one hell of a couple of records.