Cult classic albums are a rare thing in Canadian music. On the Floor of Heaven, the 1993 debut record by the long-defunct the Blue Shadows, has earned that status, and it is now being given a much-deserved new lease of life.
Earlier this month, its original label, Bumstead Records, reissued the long out of print disc in Canada, affording it a deluxe two-CD treatment. It received the same treatment in the U.S. on Tuesday (June 15), marking the first time the album has been available south of the border.
That is especially pleasing to guitarist/singer/songwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, who formed the band with the late Billy Cowsill in Vancouver in the early '90s.
"I always longed for the band to get exposed in the U.S., especially the southern states," Hatcher tells Exclaim! in a recent interview. "I had a strong feeling that if the record had been properly promoted there and in places like Japan, Australia and the UK, places with old-style country fans, then I think it'd have gone over really well."
Upon its release in Canada, On the Floor of Heaven didn't exactly break sales records. Band manager and head of Bumstead Records Larry Wanagas (who also managed k.d. lang at the time) tells Exclaim!, "There was some airplay and a Juno nomination, but the road was where the Blue Shadows lived and made fans. They did sell a respectable number of CDs at the time as well."
The album's retro honky tonk style was at odds with the prevailing new country trend of the day, something that made securing an international release problematic.
"It was not for lack of trying," says Wanagas. "You have to remember, there wasn't a solid 'alt country' movement for us to tap into at the time. We now need to create a demand through targeted publicity and good old 'word of mouth.'"
Wanagas explains that he'd been planning a reissue for quite some time, but didn't want to rush it out after Cowsill's death in 2006, a full decade after the Blue Shadows broke up.
"I just wanted to wait a bit after Billy died, even though many fans and friends were on me right away to do so," he says. "As much as I respected Billy's talents and considered him a friend, the Blue Shadows was also about Jeff Hatcher and I felt that he would get lost in the rush to reissue an album right after Billy died."
Hatcher is pleased that the current interest in his band's material proves its longevity.
"The songs were never intended to be of the moment," he explains. "All of us in the band [rounded out by drummer J.B. Johnson and bassists Elmar Spanier, then Barry Muir] plus management [Wanagas and Dave Chesney] were very confident it was very strong on its own - and that it could have found an audience anytime in the previous 30 years, or the next 30. I think a few years earlier or later the Blue Shadows might have caught a wave, but you can never know these things."
He recalls the sessions for the self-produced On the Floor of Heaven as being "very smooth. We were playing a lot live, and that shortens up time. One interesting memory is that part of the album was taken from demo sessions we did at Larry's demo studio, an eight-track reel-to-reel studio in the back of the Bumstead office in Vancouver. They had as good a quality as the studio recordings of the rest of the album done at Bullfrog, itself a good studio."
Post Blue Shadows, Hatcher basically retired from the music business. "I've been working as a music therapist since 2000, and have hardly played since the Blue Shadows days," he says. "The Blue Shadows royalties put me through school. I did a Bachelor of Music Therapy and then a masters program in psychology at Simon Fraser."
Recently he has become more musically active, reuniting with former comrades Don and Paul Hatcher (yes, his brothers) and David Briggs. They had played together in the Fuse and later as Jeffrey Hatcher and the Big Beat, prior to the formation of the Blue Shadows.
"I'm playing with those guys again, here in Winnipeg," he explains. "We're not performing much, aside from private parties, but we are writing, recording and uploading material as the Hatcher Briggs Collective. It's very satisfying, with equal input from my brother Don, who is also the producer and engineer, and Dave Briggs."
Hatcher reports that they're planning to release an album of material this summer or fall, while he is also planning to head to Nashville for some cowriting sessions.
He has also seen more of his songs surface on disc recently, courtesy of former musical partner Wendy Bird. The pair led Vancouver-based band the Sugar Beats during and shortly after the Blue Shadows era, and Bird recently released an album comprising her versions of Hatcher songs.
"The record's called Natural Wonder, and it's lovely," says Hatcher. "I had nothing to do with it, but I am thrilled by it."
Contributors to the recording include Elvis Costello, Barney Bentall, Colin James, Craig Northey (the Odds), and Adam Levy (Norah Jones).
Hatcher is confident that his comrade Billy Cowsill would have been thrilled at the reissue. "He told me back in Blue Shadows days that he was happier with our recorded output than anything he'd been able to do with the Cowsills [the American family pop group that topped the charts in the '60s]."
On the Floor of Heaven is out now on Bumstead Records.
-Kerry Doole, exclaim.ca, Jun 16, 2010
Seventeen Years Later, The Blue Shadows Reach U.S.
It was a good year for songs like Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)," but 1993 was not a kind year in which to release an album of densely textured country-rock songs like On the Floor of Heaven by the Vancouver band The Blue Shadows. The dozen original songs on this debut album owed more to Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the 1968 album by The Byrds, than it did to anything current in 1993. Heard now, however, the songs sound timeless, reaching back and forth across decades of pop music, from the '50s to the present.
The title song on On the Floor of Heaven features the plaintive harmonies of group leaders Jeffrey Hatcher and Billy Cowsill. I hear some of the Everly Brothers in those harmonies, as well as a lot of hardcore country music in the pedal-steel guitar playing. Hatcher was a journeyman Canadian musican who'd enjoyed success with other bands. Billy Cowsill was something different: He was part of The Cowsills, an American pop act who'd had a No. 2 hit in 1967 with "The Rain, The Park and Other Things." The Cowsills were a family act: at their maximum group size, five Cowsill brothers and sister Susan -- still very much active -- plus their mother, Barbara. If you're of a certain age, you may know that The Cowsills were the inspiration for the popular TV-show pop-music act The Partridge Family.
By the time Billy Cowsill came to Jeffrey Hatcher and Canada, however, The Cowsills had long since faded and Billy was prone to substance abuse; he was quoted as saying that The Blue Shadows consisted of "three vegetarians and a junkie." Certainly, there is some deeply felt pain -- a blue shadow -- that spreads across much of this music. Cowsill, who died in 2006, seems to be standing in that shadow during the song "Is Anybody Here."
It would be exaggerating the importance of The Blue Shadows to say that On the Floor of Heaven is a lost masterpiece. What it is is yet another example of the way pop music is frequently crafted within the isolation of a group's existance, heedless of the trends of its time -- and, at its best, in stubborn pursuit of nothing more than the sounds the musicians hear in their own heads. In this sense, On the Floor of Heaven is a complete, and frequently exhilarating, success.
Produced by Billy Cowsill and Jeffery Hatcher
One of the great missing chapters of Canadiana music history can now be rediscovered with the long-awaited reissue of the classic debut album by the legendary group The Blue Shadows.
On The Floor of Heaven is considered by many of those who got to hear it upon its initial release in 1993 as one of the great, unheralded achievements of the alt-country movement. Out of print for more than 15 years, the roots rock masterpiece is now reissued as a two-disc Deluxe Edition via Bumstead Records on June 1.
Formed in Vancouver in the early 1990s, The Blue Shadows consisted of guitarist and singer Billy Cowsill – who began his career as leader of the legendary American bubblegum group The Cowsills (of "The Rain, The Park & Other Things" fame) – and Canadian roots rocker Jeffrey Hatcher – who enjoyed cult success in the 1980s fronting Jeffrey Hatcher & The Big Beat. Together with drummer J.B. Johnson and bassist Elmar Spanier (later replaced by Barry Muir), the quartet forged a style built on the rustic sounds of classic country fused with the pop sensibility of The Beatles and tight harmony vocals that have drawn flattering comparisons to the Everly Brothers.
From the opening fiddle-fueled blast of "Coming On Strong" to the haunting climax "Is Anybody Here," On The Floor of Heaven is a feast for fans of hardscrabble country and 60s pop, packed full of Hatcher and Cowsill's inventive songwriting and immaculately nuanced vocal harmonies, the quartet's muscular rhythmic punch and Hatcher's tasteful, twangful touches on lead guitar. Songs such as "When Will This Heartache End?" or the anthemic, mournful title track are both throwbacks to a classic era before country and rock and roll went their separate ways and timeless in the stories the songs tell and the emotions they evoke.
Despite releasing two albums, garnering critical raves and touring extensively around North America, The Blue Shadows never managed to reach beyond a wildly devoted cult following and they broke up in 1996. Cowsill passed away in Calgary in February 2006. One of his last wishes was for a reissue of On The Floor of Heaven so it could finally find a wider audience.