One evening near the beginning of a four-month mystery journey that began after Hurricane Katrina swallowed their home, Russ Broussard put his feeling of rootlessness into words for his wife, singer Susan Cowsill.
“I feel like a kite without a string,” Broussard said.
The songwriter in Cowsill knew a good image when she heard it. She grabbed her phone to record it, and it became the first line in “Crescent City Sneaux,” the first song she wrote on a disc where Cowsill tries to process the aftereffects of the 2005 storm. She was left temporarily homeless at the same time she was searching for her brother Barry, who died under mysterious circumstances in New Orleans after the hurricane.
Getting back to work wasn’t easy. The disc, “Lighthouse,” comes nearly five years after Katrina and only after a record company’s nudge made it “painfully obvious we weren’t doing anything,” she said.
She hopes the results are a tonic.
“It is like medicine to our souls and, for sure, medicine to our friends and family, neighbors and community,” she said.
Cowsill, 51, banged on a tambourine in the late 1960s when her family’s band was making hits such as “The Rian, the Park, and Other Things” and “Indian lake.” Brothers Barry, Bill, Bob, John and Paul were the heart of the group, and mom joined the act, too. It was the real-life model for television’s “The Partridge Family.”
But the little girl was a keeper. She grew to have an expressive voice, one that moves from the edge of cracking from heartbreak to being resolute and strong. She was the secret weapon in the Continental Drifters, a rootsy, shoulda-been super-group where ex-husband and songwriter Peter Holsapple and former Bangle Vicki Peterson (Cowsill’s sister-in-law, married to John) were marquee names. Broussard was the band’s drummer.
New Orleans became her adopted hometown after the Continental Drifters moved their operations there in 1993.
Cowsill had been out of town performing when Katrina struck, and Broussard join her in evacuating.They spent four months in their car, bunking at the homes of various friends as they decided what would come next. Each visit was secretly a tryout, reflected in the album’s “Could This Be Home.”
Four months after Katrina, when they knew school would be open for Cowsill’s daughter, they returned to New Orleans.
It was on Dec. 28, 2005, when Barry’s body was recovered from the Chartress Street Wharf, a presumed victim of Katrina’s flooding.
His sister’s detective work has concluded it might not be that simple.
Barry was a troubled soul who had been scheduled to enter alcohol rehabilitation the Monday after Katrina struck. He resisted evacuation, and he survived, leaving several messages with family asking to be retrieved.
Following the storm, a brass plaque was found by a famous oak tree in New Orleans’ Audubon Park that said, “In honor of Barry Cowsill, who died a true genius on the levee, Sept. 2, 2005.” Cowsill discovered, after a friend pointed out the plaque, that Barry’s necklace as wrapped around it. And the place he had been staying with a friend was missing a piece of brass. Her conclusion from this and other clues: Barry committed suicide.
“We’ll never know for sure, but I think he walked into the water after putting up a plaque in memorial to himself,” she said.
Susan sings one of Barry’s songs, “River of Love,” on her new album. “We had been playing it,l” she said. “I think I started playing it because I was looking for him.”
Her brother Bill, who had moved to Canada and who had maintained his own music career, died at age 58 less than two months after Barry’s body was discovered. Despite the tragedies, the Cowsills as a musical act have reformed. Bob, Paul and Susan, two of her nephews, Russ and other musicians frequently perform the old hits, which Susan considers a joyous complement to her own career.
Cowsill worked with Threadhead Records, an untraditional company that offers loans and helps artists raise money to record.
Cowsill hadn’t gone out of her way to write a hurricane album and jokes now that “if I write one more storm son, somebody choke me.”
But songwriters frequently confront difficult emotions by writing about them, and Cowsill’s no different. Much of what she wrote came during the months of uncertainty immediately after Katrina.
“It forced the hand of all this music to get done,” she said. “It was a culmination of a situation. In finishing the recording and stamping it, it’s done.”
While the music’s meaning to New Orleans is obvious, “I’d like it to reach further than our hometown,” she said. “We’re not the only people limping along in this world.”