The first truly great Canadian country album of the year has finally surfaced. Thank The Blue Shadows.
Their debut, On The Floor Of Heaven, packs more inspiration, intrigue and ingenuity into its 12 tracks than any recording this side of Prairie Oyster’s Everybody Knows. There On The Floor Of Heaven Memphis rockabilly meets Liverpool merseybeat. It’s condensed from such giants as Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr. The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, Ricky nelson and The Beatles.
“There’s really nothing new under the sun, you know. But there are new hybrids. Everything is an evolution of what’s gone before. That’s how things develop. That’s how styles become current and outdated too.
“But there are some things that are never outdated, and it has to do with the feel of the situation rather than the kind of music it is. To me playing rock ‘n’ roll music or country music, the feel of both – the heartbeat feel – is exactly the same. It is.”
The voice belongs to Billy Cowsill, co-founder of this Vancouver-based quartet. By his side sits his writing partner and guitarist Jeffrey Hatcher – a veteran of such Winnipeg and Toronto rock bands as The Fuse, The Six and The Big Beat. Larry Wanagas – K.D. Lang’s manager – brought these two together in 1990.
Their mutual infatuation with ‘60s pop and an uncanny ability to create seamless harmonies serving as a common focal point. Wanagas, along with former CBS Records representative Dave Chesney, now co-manages The Blue Shadows. He also played an instrumental role in Columbia-Sony Music releasing On The Floor Of Heaven.
“Usually management deals with managing the artist and going for the dough. . . . With Chesney and Wanagas, the main thing with these guys, which impressed me initially, was the song comes first. Without the song you’ve got nothing. . . . And that’s what was very, very good. They both have good musical ears.”
Cowsill, of course, knows a thing or two about recording successful songs. As a teenager singing with the family band, The Cowsills, he recorded huge U.S. bubblegum hits like Hair and The Rain, The Park and Other Things.
Cowsill, though, had different ideas about music than his siblings and left them at the peak of their popularity. He then spent more years than he cares to remember: “Getting my ass kicked left and right, spittin’ in the devil’s eye and watchin’ it sizzle,” as he recalls on Heaven’s sleeve notes.
He hung out with J.J. Cale and performed around Texas with Joe Ely and Jimmy Dale Gilmore. He also took the last of his Cowsills cash and bought a bar in Austin, Tex. And proceeded to drink it dry.
“I was a lush at the time. It was like getting the keys to heaven – lying on the floor of heaven. . . . I’m an alcoholic, recovering. I haven’t had a drink in 10 years.”
Back then, he felt he had to leave Austin for the sake of his health. So he looked at a map and more or less decided Vancouver looked far enough away. He moved there in 1979 and worked his way through various bands before meeting drummer J.B. Johnson and bassist Elmar Spainer in the late ‘8s. That trio became the nucleus of The Blue Shadows – a line up solidified by the later addition of Hatcher.
For a while they toured Western Canada playing the songs of “dead guys”: Roy Orbison, John Lennon, Hank Williams Sr.
Then Larry Wanagas came into the picture. He tried to get a record deal in Nashville for Cowsill, but failed miserably. However, Cowsill and Hatcher started to really gel, both as performers and songwriters. Eventually, they condensed their diverse musical roots into the glorious toxic brew that became On The Floor Of Heaven.
“It kind of bubbled up. It just kind of came out. There was no conspiracy, you know. We’re just a bunch of working men that play music and have a good time doing it. We’ve all had out influences and it all merges. Nothing collides. We’re all musically like minded. It’s got to be rocking and it’s got to be moving and that’s the bottom line.”