You ask him about it and he says he’s no more religious than you or me. But then, reflecting on a life spent mostly bumping up hard against the regular boundaries of safe and sane behavior, Bill Cowsill concedes he does feel a little blessed, all things considered.
“Some people are just a little more hard-headed or stubborn or probably stupid than others,” says the co-leader, songwriter and singer with the Vancouver-based Blue Shadows. “Some of us just stumble along and trip over things and then get lucky.”
Things do seem unusually peachy for Cowsill and the Shadows these days. Their second album, Lucky To Me, knocked people’s socks off with its crisp story-songs and high lonesome harmonies. They’re one of the hottest acts on country radio and are in the middle of their first real head-lining tour (at Barrymore’s Friday, $5 at the door).
This is an odd spot for Cowsill to be in because it’s fair to say he’s done his share of stumbling over the years.
If you’re a certain age you probably remember Cowsill pretty well, even if you don’t think you do. He was the cute little bug in the Sixties who with his siblings in the appropriately named The Cowsills, irritated the heck out of true hippies with their chirpy version of Hair and other adult visions of what the kids were thinking.
“The Cowsills were originally kind of folky, but we had the voices and the harmonies and we were able to handle that Beatles and Hollies sound and that was what was selling.”
The thing is even though Cowsill knew the shining, happy people stuff wasn’t what he’d been put on earth to accomplish he couldn’t figure out anything more constructive to do that to take his royalties and buy a bar in Austin, Texas.
“It was dropping out, sure, but I needed to get to see some of the roots music first hand and that was the way I figured out to do it,” Cowsill said at a recent showcase with partner Jeffrey Hatcher at the Ottawa Lynx stadium.
“I got a lot of info, but I did a lot of damage too.”
The fact is he spent most of his time with bad characters like John Hiatt and Joe Ely, drinking the bar dry while picking up the essentials of country and Texas Blues. Push came to shove and he hit the road.
But even in the midst of an apparent instinct for self-destruction, there was method to the man’s madness. For example, at one point he ended up in Oklahoma City hanging out and touring a bit with the Leon Russell mafia, honing his roots knowledge with folks like Russell, Carl Radle and J.J. Cale.
Still, he didn’t have anything you could call a career and, for reasons that remain unclear, he upped and moved to Vancouver in the ‘80s and got messed up in that city’s country scene in more ways than one.
“I did a solo thing, just trying to stay on stage and then we had Blue Northern, which had a couple of popular things for a while.”
It still all felt like puttering around until some mutual friends introduced Cowsill and Hatcher.
Like Cowsill’s Blue Northern, Hatcher had had some critical success with his band the Big Beat but didn’t have much cash to show for it. And, even though he’s about a decade younger, Hatcher shared a musical songbook with Cowsill, heavy on the sweet sounds of early rock good old country and the Beatles.
“The first time Jeffrey and I sang together, it was there. We looked at each other and just kept going.”
You kind of hate to make comparisons, but there’s no avoiding the fact that Hatcher and Cowsill together make as much sense as Don and Phil Everly, without sounding like the Everlys. Close your eyes when the two of them are singing and a mysterious third voice seems to appear.
“I’m not going to try to analyze what happens, it’s just too scary for me,” Cowsill says. “We just know where the other one’s going and how to meet him there.”
They also seemed to share a brain when it came to songwriting.
“It’s a strange sensation writing with Jeffrey, because I’m kind of lazy by nature. But get me together with him and the thoughts and ideas seem to flow on their own.”
Their first album, On the Floor of Heaven, had a high concentration of purish country: The real stuff, not the big-hat-no-cattle junk that dominate the airwaves. But it’s with their new album that the band stakes out a claim to forget categories statue.
Ballads like Time’s Out of Place or Tell Me and true-grit rockers like Riding Only Dow or Trouble with Trouble could be played on any radio station, demographics be damned.
“At this stage, we’re really not into categories. I don’t know how anybody picks anything on radio, but I’m sure not apologizing if somebody says we’re country.
“It’s just a really cool thing to be able to be making good music at this stage and having people listen.”