Imagine Hank Williams jumping onstage with the Beatles at the Cavern Club in Liverpool in the early ‘60s, or John Paul, Ringo and George backing Hank as he blew the roof off the Grand Old Opry in 1949.
That’s the sound of the Blue Shadows, circa 1994. A timeless sound that mixes Hank’s twang and deep emotion with the Beatles’ beat and harmonies to make music that’s both fresh and familiar.
“Hank Williams was a Beatle, you know,” laughs singer/guitarist Billy Cowsill. “And the Beatles are Hank Williams. It’s the same thing basically, in a different time, with different techniques. But it’s the same emotion, the same honesty. It’s truth, and you just can’t negate truth. When somebody lays it down and means it, that’s the bottom line.”
This also might be the credo for Cowsill’s up and down career, which soared to the top of the pops as a teenager (in the late ‘60s, he warbled three Top 10 hits with his family band the Cowsills) but has also had some dreadful lows, including a long bout with alcoholism.
But through thick and thin, Cowsill stuck to his vision of marrying the honest emotion of stone-cold country with the passion and energy of rock and roll. And finally, his perseverance is beginning to pay off.
Two years back he hooked up with guitarist/vocalist Jeff Hatcher to for the Blue Shadows. They make an odd couple – Billy looks like he’s gone a few rounds with Satan, while Jeff is a classic nice-guy-next-door-type. But when they put their voices together, people’s jaws hit the floor.
“We’re vehicles,” says Cowsill, who appears with the band at the Starfish Room Jan 20(could be 29 hard to read) “We’ve _____ a certain amount of knowledge, it’s ______. We’ve all get our collective unconscious influences that emerge, that help the new song out, help it get born. But the song basically writes itself if the ____ are in sync with each other.”
“I swear (the songs) are already written,” adds Hatcher. “They really are. I don’t aspire to be mysterious, ‘cause I’m not, but I really think they’re all written. All those notes are there, they’re all in that order.”
If that’s true, then Cowsill and Hatcher must have also been fated to meet and join forces, because rarely do you run across two musicians whose talents are so complementary. (The band is rounded out by drummer J.B. Johnson and bassist Barry Muir.)
Cowsill has a marvel of a voice, a fluid, effortless trill that can only be described as God-given. He’s also has a knack for penning classic country songs. Problem is, he just didn’t write too many of them – until Hatcher came along.
Their harmonies are uncanny, a magical blend that recalls the Everly Brothers, Lennon and McCartney and Dave Edmonds and Nick Lowe.
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At least, their songs seem like long lost gems called from some golden era that never was.
Hatcher is one of those driven souls who seem to write a couple of songs per week. (Lately, he’s been collaborating with Barney Bentall and Jim Byrnes.) Though they’re a decade apart in ae (Cowsill turned 46 Jan. 9, Hatcher’s 36), they share common musical obsessions – Roy Orbison, Arthur Alexander, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane, the Beach Boys, Merle Haggard and George Jones, among others – and were natural writing partners. And Cowsill found himself writing more songs in six months than he had in six years.
Hatcher’s initial claim to fame was as guitarist/vocalist for a variety of fiery Winnipeg bands like the Fuse, the Big Beat and the Six. His soft touch on the guitar, and knack for penning bright ‘60s style pop-rock, earned him a rep as a kind of Canadian Marshall Crenshaw.
When he moved to Vancouver three years ago, he looked up old acquaintance Larry Wanagas, who was now managing k.d. lang. Wanagas had been trying to get Cowsill’s career back on track by flying him to Nashville to write with big time songwriters like Mark Erwin (who wrote Alan Jackson’s Here in the Real World) and Bill Lloyd (of Foster and Lloyd fame).
Wanagas introduced the two, and when Billy needed a guitarist a few months later, Hatcher stepped in. It was a trial by fire – the didn’t rehearse before they hit the stage – but ‘cause Cowsill was then doing his “Dead Guys” set (tunes from late greats like Orbison, Hank Sr. and John Lennon), Hatcher had all the songs down pat.
Cowsill has a fairly caustic, cynical side that was hardened from years of playing the fallen angel in bars. But he brightened up the instant the pair harmonized on Beatles tunes like Anytime At All and She Loves You.
“I never dreamed that anyone else would pick up on the slight nuances of Beatles songs or those slight fades in Roy Orbison records, pick things apart as much as I have,” says Cowsill.
“I’m still working on I saw Her Standing There – every time I hear that record. I hear something new. And all of a sudden there’s this guy who’s never sat in, we’re up there doin’ these Beatles songs.
Suddenly there was a light at the end of the tunnel for the Newport, R.I., native who’d been on a down-bound train, career wise, since he left the Cowsills following a drunken row with his father/manager in Las Vegas.
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After a couple of dud 45s, the band struck gold when they hooked up with producer/songwriter Artie Kornfeld and recorded The Rain, The Park and Other Things in 1967. But Kornfeld was soon displaced by producer Wes Farrell and Billy soured at the schmaltzy material being handed “America’s First Family of Music.”
Ironically, the band’s biggest hit was an accident.
“We did Hair as a pre-record for a lip-sync to a skit on a Carl Reiner (Rob Reiner’s dad) special called The Wonderful World of Pizzazz recalls Cowsill.
“We wore all those fright wigs from Japan and chains and leather and stuff. He thought it would be really wacky to have the clean-cut Cowsills do this. We recorded it for the skit (But) it sounded good, so we put it out, and the rest is history.”
Hollywood took notice of the Cowsills phenomenon, and approached them about doing a TV series loosely based on their life. The band turned it down – and the series The Partridge Family went on to a huge hit.
“The original idea was the musical family goes across the desert in a covered wagon,” he says. “That was the first scenario for The Partridge Family. I don’t know what they were gonna call it – Singing Your Way West. We went ‘Yuck” No!”
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