Don’t talk to Billy Cowsill about the past.
“This is the most fun I’ve had in my 45 years on the planet,” the man who brought the world Hair says after his new band, the Blue Shadows, warmed up a cold prairie night for 60 or so country music mavens.
“This is fun.”
The Cowsills were once called America’s First Family of Music, but Cowsill’s band these days is Canadian content, thanks to three Canuck bandmates. The rockabilly single Coming on Strong made an impression on radio, but Cowsill knew he had something special the day that singer/songwriter Jeffrey Hatcher first sat in with him.
“Two years ago, my guitar player went off to play with Fred Penner . . . and in the meantime (Hatcher was) looking for work. So he went down to audition for the band, sat in – as a guitar player. I didn’t even know he could sing, and I said, ‘any Beatles songs?’
“So we did You Really Got a Hold on Me, and it really came out like that (gestures to stage) the first time we played it. It was a totally natural, almost kindred kind of sound; made my hair stand on end. Because the only other people that I’d harmonized with that way was the Cowsills.”
Both in concert and on their first album, On The Floor of Heaven, Hatcher’s and Cowsill’s voices harmonize and intermingle almost eerily, as though Hatcher were some far-flung branch of the Cowsill family tree.
Hatcher, who had slowly achieved a national following of his own with his bands the Fuse, the Six and the Big Beat, also felt an instant connection with Cowsill.
“I knew as soon as I was singing with Bill, that he had listened to, at different times. He’s old enough to have listened to the ‘50s stuff as a little boy.”
Though Hatcher, improbably elfin at 36, missed that era of music the first time around, its influence on the Blue Shadows (now with Barry Muir on Bass and J.B. Johnson on drums) is clear. While Cowsill’s been enjoying Nirvana and REM of late, and gives good reviews to contemporaries like Joe Ely and Warren Zevon, his true musical touchstones still go back decades.
“Paul Simon once said the way to be original is to listen to everything or nothing. I still listen to basically my old records: Patsy Cline, Hank Williams Sr., George Jones, the Hollies . . . “
Cowsill’s well-worn records have had their impact on the Blue Shadows’ sound. With its minimal production, clear melodies and sweet harmonies, the band would have fit comfortably in between Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers on the Ed Sullivan show, before there were rigid lines between country music and rock ‘n’ roll. That division is blurring again, which suits Hatcher just fine.
“I was perfectly in step with the musical tenor of the times in about 1966 when I was nine years old. And after that, I’ve never been in step since. I was dying to have this Little Richard rock ‘n’ roll band in 1972. I couldn’t get a gig.
“The Blue Shadows – without us planning it – feels like the timing is very nice for it.”
The band’s immediate future involves wending its way east on tour, including opening for a reunited The Band in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. Their second single is on the way. Hatcher expects they’ll be back in Medicine Hat around February or March, and just a few months later, the second album will be out, since much of it’s already been written by Cowsill and Hatcher.
“The song Think On it – which is the next single – the Big Beat never recorded, but we used to play that once in a while. I’ve written a lot of songs over the years, and at certain pints I’ve really driven myself to get lots of them finished, because I had some idea that one day they’d come in handy. And I’m glad I did.”
Or as Billy Cowsill puts it, his worn face breaking into a smile: “It’s really horseshoes up our ass, man.”