Susan Cowsill may be the best-kept secret in Americana. Just ask the packed crowd at any one of her concert stops on the tour in support of her latest release, 'Lighthouse.' If you think the album's 12 songs -- including the much-heralded 'Avenue of the Indians,' on which she duets with old family friend Jackson Browne -- are powerful, wait until you hear Susan's husky, expressive voice in concert.
"I grow weary of my story," Susan tells The Boot. Yet, for those unfamiliar with that story, Susan, now 51, was about 6 years old when her family band, the Cowsills, served as the inspiration for the popular '70s TV series 'The Partridge Family.' "I write my songs to make myself feel better. That's where my writing comes from. It's not to show everybody what I can do and have them love me. When somebody does get something out of my music, though, it makes me feel good."
As Susan and her band took the stage in an intimate club in Vienna, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C. those standing quickly hustled to their seats.
"I will talk frequently throughout this set," Susan said with a smile. "Sometimes you'll want me to talk. Sometimes you won't. It's not optional."
The fans would seemingly have not had it any other way. As Susan -- dressed in a brown tunic, short khaki skirt, tights and low boots -- paused between songs to talk about their origins, introduce her band, or relate tales of life in her adopted hometown of New Orleans, the audience stayed almost silent, hanging onto her words.
"We're going to play a song you're familiar with to [rope] you in," said Susan as she and her band launched into a cover of John Prine's 'Angel From Montgomery.'
But Susan didn't really need to ease anyone into her own songs. Her voice, filled with a mix of hope, longing and occasional sorrow, was captivating. Little wonder many compare her to British folk icon Sandy Denny, especially since has covered Sandy's well-known 'Who Knows Where the Times Goes?'
While Susan seems a natural to sing folk, her own songs are a mix of alt-country and blues, with occasional hints of rock and pop. Although she could be considered multi-faceted, Susan prefers to call herself a "musical mutt."
As she moved from the title track of 'Lighthouse,' which tells the story of a young Susan watching the beam from a lighthouse out the window of her childhood home in Newport, R.I., to 'Dragon Flys,' about her late brother Barry, Susan's songs were achingly textured and heartfelt.
Yet, after 27 years as part of the Continental Drifters and then a solo artist, Susan knows how to keep a crowd upbeat and engaged. At the Virginia show, she talked about how she and her husband (also her drummer and road manager, Russ Broussard) had considered moving to Pennsylvania to acquire Amish-crafted furniture and otherwise get back to nature after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Her New Orleans-themed tune, 'Onola,' may, in fact, put you in mind of another distinctive vocalist, Lucinda Williams. Throughout the show, Susan also talked about the fun and hi-jinx she and her brothers got up to during her childhood.
For all the texture and maturity Susan brings to her work, she never tries to distance herself from the Cowsills and the band's hits, including 'Hair' and the theme song to the TV series 'Love American Style.' She occasionally performs and records with her brothers and at one point in the Virginia show she played one of the group's hits "(I Love) the Flower Girl."
"I love to do a lot of different projects," says Susan, listing some recording and film work she's considering, most notably in her beloved adopted hometown of New Orleans. "They can be very inspiring and shake you up. That's why I like to hang out with 23- or 25-year old musicians, soak some of that up. It's not just the story of me. There are a lot of fascinating stories out there."
Susan Cowsill continues to tour in support of her new music. For a complete list of dates and cities, check here.