Wood and Steel Summer Issue

The Wood&Steel Interview:
SUSAN COWSILL


In the late ’60s, she was the little
sister in the family act the Cowsills.
Five years ago, she lost everything
in Hurricane Katrina. These days,
Susan Cowsill embraces the healing
catharsis of music and the resilient
spirit of New Orleans.

By Dan Forte

My Lord he’s done just what he
said; Let your light from the lighthouse
shine on me.
Heal the sick and raise the dead;
Let your light from the lighthouse
shine on me.
— Blind Willie Johnson, 1929

Though not an overtly religious
statement, Lighthouse,
the new CD by Susan
Cowsill, is about death and grieving,
as well as healing and hope and joy.
She began writing its songs in 2005,
after her New Orleans home and
everything in it was lost to Hurricane
Katrina. The storm also claimed her
brother Barry, one of five brothers
she performed with in the Cowsills,
’60s pop-rock’s first true family band.
On this day, she’s in Austin,
Texas, fitting in an interview over
breakfast before going to record
with Freedy Johnston and Jon Dee
Graham. She talks about Lighthouse
and what led up to it — inevitably
encompassing her beginnings as a
pre-adolescent rocker.

By a stroke of luck, Susan was
in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when Katrina hit,
recording with her longtime friend
and ex-boyfriend, Dwight Twilley.
She had recently married Russ
Broussard, one of New Orleans’
standout percussionists. “We were
going to go to Nashville for a gig the
following week,” she details. “But
my husband, who was still in New
Orleans, had to evacuate.”
Their house took on six feet of
water, and everything was lost — from
Cowsills memorabilia and family pictures
to equipment to just-purchased
merchandise for the release of her
first solo album, Just Believe It.
Eventually, she learned the fate
of older brother Barry. “In 2005,”
she recounts, “he had finally come
to a place in his life where it was
time for him to get his act together
— for myriad reasons. He was
scheduled on that Monday to take
a plane to L.A., be picked up by my
brother Bob, and he was going into
a MusiCares rehab facility. The storm
came, and I was out of town. His
buddy said, ‘We gotta get outta here.
I’m going to Florida. Let’s go.’ Barry
was like, ‘I’ve got a ticket out of here
for Monday. If we go to Florida, I’m
looking at changing flights. And, in
general, these things just come and
go.’ Because they’d never had the
big, big one.”
Barry stayed at his friend’s place
in the warehouse district, and made
it through the Monday storm OK.
last message from him, Thursday at
2:00 a.m., said, ‘I’ll call you in the
morning,’ and I never heard from him
again. He ended up drowned in the
Mississippi.”
Ironically, on the day of Barry’s
memorial, the family heard that brother
Bill had passed away in Canada
following a lengthy illness.
uring a two-year period
beginning in late 1967,
Newport, Rhode Island’s
Cowsills scored four Top 40 hits,
with two of them (“The Rain, the Park
and Other Things” and their version
of “Hair,” from the Broadway musical)
reaching #2 on Billboard’s singles
chart.
They appeared on the TV shows
of Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and
with Susan: “Do you have any message
that you would like to tell everyone?”
“Yes. My poodle’s name is
Suba.”) A month later, they had their
own NBC special, “A Family Thing,”
featuring, among other things, Susan
doing a soft-shoe with The Beverly
Hillbillies’ Buddy Ebsen — in contrast
to her usual bell-bottomed boogaloo.
The group’s original lineup consisted
of brothers Bill, Bob, Barry
and John. “That was before Mom
and I joined,” Susan explains, “and
it turned into this other thing. And
then Paul joined. I joined in ’67, when
I was eight. I know that for our Ed
Sullivan Show [appearance], when
‘The Rain, The Park’ was peaking,
I’d been in the band for two months.
So I toured around that first record
that I was not on. My first record
doesn’t apply to anybody, really.
Before that, they were a really tight
R&B/rock band. Once New York
City got it, and that novelty of these
brothers and their mother singing,
it took on a whole other life force. It
was certainly a part of who we were;
it’s just not what [my brothers] had
in mind. But it was clear that that
was going to bring it to a place, perhaps,
where once feet in, then you
start to exert control over it. But that
never happened for my brothers. It
morphed and morphed, and the next
thing you know we’re all dancing on
an NBC special with matching grape
Jell-O pants.”
If the brothers/sisters/parent
lineup sounds familiar, it should.
“We were slated to get our own TV
show, which ended up being The
“He left me several phone messages
that I didn’t get ’til that Thursday.
Our cell phones didn’t work for days
and days, but for some reason some
landlines in NOLA were working, and
he was going across the street to the
pay phone. So he made it through
the storm and said so, and then the
water started rising and all hell broke
loose. When my phone started working,
I had all these messages. The
Mike Douglas and performed with
hosts from Johnny Cash to Dean
Martin, who dueted with Susan on
“Shine On Harvest Moon.” They
endorsed (what else?) milk — with
such time-capsule ads as “Meditate
on Milk” — and in October of 1968
were the stars of their own comic
book. (It featured fan mail and
interviews with the band members,
including this priceless exchange
with the Cowsills was We Can Fly.
I’d been working on trying to get
into that band forever. But I’d been
the little sister. They were not thrilled
with having their mother and sister
in their band. Why would they be?
They wanted to be the Stones or the
Beatles, and certainly could have
been. But they didn’t start out being
somebody’s idea of pop or sweet —
we’ll use the word bubblegum, which
Partridge Family. By the time they
got to us, after developing for a
couple of years, we were growing
up real quick. Drugs, rock & roll — all
that stuff — and time for family to
separate. Also, they wanted a name
actress to play my mom; we weren’t
actors — just all these things.”
There is, of course, a long history
of family ensembles in country music
and bluegrass, but it’s hard to find a
precedent in rock & roll that spans
so many ages, not to mention two
generations. “No, I can comfortably
say that we were the first family of
pop rock & roll,” declares Susan. “We
had the Osmond Brothers, but they
weren’t rocked out yet; they were the
guys on The Andy Williams Show.
There was no one before us who
was pop, modern, music of today,
who had a family.”
To give some perspective, “The
Rain, the Park and Other Things”
entered the Billboard charts two
years before 1969’s “I Want
You Back” by the Jackson 5. The
Osmonds’ metamorphosis, with “One
Bad Apple,” didn’t come until early
1971.
In retrospect, rock historians
have given the Cowsills’ their just
due for their complex harmonies and
arrangements. “Indian Lake,” from
1968, resembles the Beach Boys of
the same period, for instance. And
they’re often credited for being able
to “make a bad song sound good”
— with “Hair” usually cited. “That’s a
good example to use, I think,” Susan
laughs. “My brothers were and are
very talented, legitimate musicians.
Bill crested that scary zone of maybe
genius — which can be a hindrance,
too. To be able to hear something
and find a unique way of returning it
to you, and/or covering something
spot on. We were also the best
cover band, because we could sound
exactly like who we were covering or
make it our own and sound like the
Cowsills. And that’s definitely what
we did with ‘Hair.’
“I’m grateful that, when the book
is finally closed, in the final analysis,
we were and are a great band, with
great songwriters and arrangements
that were just beyond. I mean, we
got screwed financially. So at least
artistically, if the proper accolades
are made, I will feel a whole lot better
— in honor of my brothers.”

Susan (back right), performing with the Cowsills on The Tonight Show, circa 1968-69; photo courtesy of Rebecca Presley

Like so many groups of the day,
inexperience cost them dearly in the
pocketbook. Susan describes father/manager
Bud Cowsill as “a charismatic
guy and a go-getter — and a
real a–hole, too — but he didn’t know
what he was doing. So once he got
to New York, the Madison Avenue
guys were twirling their mustaches,
going, ‘No problem. Trust us.’”
Royalties and publishing were
signed away in the process. “I don’t
dwell on it, and never have, but it
bothers me now mostly when I see
my brothers, who are coming up on
their sixties still working day jobs,
and they shouldn’t be. I’ve lived my
life, and I love my life. I live rent to
rent and always have. I’m a musician;
that’s the way it is. I’m fine. But
there’s no way they shouldn’t be well
off and playing out in the summers
just for the fun of it.”
As with the Jacksons, the
Osmonds, the Everly Brothers and
others, the Cowsills had their own
impossible-to-duplicate sibling harmonies.
Asked when she discovered
that ability, Susan responds, “Forever.
Nobody had any training. All I know
is my brothers could just sing, and
my mother [Barbara, who passed
away in 1985] was a natural singer
with no professional background. It’s
completely DNA-oriented. There are
six guys, and two of them got less of
it. And they know it, and they’re OK
with it. That being said, one of them,
Paul, worked really hard to improve
what pinch he had, and he’s great.
My other brother, Richard, could have
done the same thing, but for many
reasons didn’t. And he had even less.
That’s not a judgment thing; it’s a
birth reality.”
Susan’s innate ability to harmonize
eventually resulted in session
work on 130-some albums with
artists ranging from Nanci Griffith
to Hootie & The Blowfish. “It wasn’t
on purpose,” she says, “but when
you’re known as a singer, people
will call you to sing. From Carlene
Carter and Howie [Epstein] from the
Heartbreakers to Jules Shear — just
the strangest people calling you up.
The way I would enter every session
was, ‘If you have harmony parts and
know what they are, tell me what
they are, and I will execute them. If
you do not have harmony parts, and
you don’t know what you want, I will
show you a myriad of possibilities. If
you do have harmony parts and want
that, I’ll do that, but would you please
just give me one track? I’ll go over it
with what I’ve got, and you can have
all of it, and use whatever you want —
yours, mine, or both.’”
Her harmonizing extends to sisterin-
law (and Bangles lead guitarist)
Vicki Peterson, who is married to
John Cowsill. In 1991, the two started
sitting in with “all-star roots-pop”
outfit the Continental Drifters, soon
becoming full-fledged members. It
was the Drifters who precipitated
Susan’s move to New Orleans in
1992. “Also, I’d recently found out
that I was pregnant [by Drifters multiinstrumentalist
and then-husband
Peter Holsapple], and I certainly
didn’t want to raise a kid in L.A.”
The last official touring year of the
Cowsills was 1972, but there have
been various reunions since 1978,
including an album, Global, in 1985.
“When Barry and Bill passed away,”
Susan says, “that definitely motivated
a need to be together. The current
version is Bob, Paul and I. John plays
drums for the Beach Boys, so Russ
plays drums for the Cowsills. And
we’re not done.” (In fact, a documentary
is in the works.)
Of the various aggregations she
performs with today, there is also, of
course, Susan’s own band. “I didn’t
start writing songs until I was 30,”
she reveals. “I didn’t play guitar until
my late twenties. I was just a singer,
but I was absorbing it all. And 12
years with Dwight Twilley certainly
planted something in there. But for
me, searching for my girl singer/
songwriter soul, it was all about Karla
Bonoff. She was definitely my beacon
of songwriting. Linda Ronstadt had
been my big hero, and I knew that
she’d done a couple of Karla’s songs,
but then when I heard Karla doing
Karla [on Bonoff’s self-titled 1977
album], that was a whole different
reality. It spoke to me. I thought her
voice was better than all those other
girls’. There was a sense of honesty
and vulnerability — not affected, just
singing stories about how she felt.”
Susan stepped out strongly
on her own with the ill-timed Just
Believe It.
“When I was with the Drifters, I
had a few songs tucked away that
were more pop-rock. Not only that,
but I’d been avoiding going solo.
I was offered a record deal with
Columbia when I was 18, and I didn’t
take it because I was in a band with
my brothers. That would have been
disloyal, in my opinion, at the time. I
hadn’t lived a life enough to have a
body of work that said, ‘This is who
I am.’ I was of the mind that if I only
made one record, I wanted it to be
like Tapestry — important musically,
and real. Then I could sit back and
go, ‘I’m really satisfied with this. It’s
who I am and what I am.’ So, Just
Believe It was just that. It was a long
time coming. I approached it very
deliberately, and I was really thrilled
with it. It came out a month after
Katrina, and that says it all. There
were a lot of plans for it, but then
all hell broke loose. It was a secondary
reality to me, in the biggest
way — which is so sad. Russ and I
toiled over it and saved the money,
because it was important. Then
Katrina came, and it was like, ‘What
record?’”
Another ongoing creative outlet
over the past five years has been her
once-a-month Covered In Vinyl gigs
in New Orleans, where Susan and
her band (sometimes with special
guests) pick a classic album and
perform it start to finish. The two
CIV albums released so far (with
another in the wings) were recorded
at Carrollton Station and feature
material by Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood
Mac, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, U2,
the Beatles, Sly & the Family Stone,
and others.
Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited
was the subject of a recent CIV
show, with diesel-country guitar
master Bill Kirchen guesting. Susan
details, “We met last summer on tour,
and he said, ‘I heard about this thing
you do. I want to come.’ We let him
pick his own record. Bill is one of the
sweetest, most precious 15-yearold
spirits I’ve ever met.” (And, as if
on cue, when asked about Susan,
Kirchen exclaims, “She’s the bomb!”)
Springsteen’s Born To Run was
especially fun, according to Susan:
“I was stunned to see the joy and
audience participation that he elicits.
I opened my mouth with the words
‘Screen door slams, Mary’s dress
waves,’ and then I could have been
in another county, for all it mattered.
The whole place just started singing
at the top of their lungs. It was such
a blast.”
More challenging albums to perform
are “anything you take on that’s
more than bass, drums and guitar;
then you’ve definitely got yourself
in a little bit of a pickle, outside that
comfort zone. But part of my new
band includes these kids — they’re
22 and 25 — the Craft brothers,
Sam and Jack. They play cello, violin,
fiddle, mando, piano, guitar; they’re
all-purpose musical geniuses. So
when I take on something like Sgt.
Pepper’s or Abbey Road, we have
all the sounds, one way or another.
We’re not a tribute band, and a lot of
times I’ll mix it up and change a song.
The audience has to sit through an
original set first, and then we do the
vinyl. And it’s a really good muscle
to exercise in one’s brain, to process
all that music. You can’t help but be
affected by it, cellularly, in your own
music, because you’ve got this muse
coming into your body every day. So
maybe it makes me a better songwriter
— I don’t know.”
Contrasting Just Believe It
and her new CD, Susan offers,
“Lighthouse, truly to me, is a much
more realistic, now-time journey. Just
Believe It was a long, long journey
— a culmination of lots of thought
and intention and care. Lighthouse
is a real-time journey that took four
years. I started writing Lighthouse
songs right after the storm. But due
to the nature of the trauma, I could
not form thoughts and sentences,
let alone complete songs. All of us
were in a state of shock for at least a
couple of years, then a state of trying
to pull our lives back together. Make
a record? I’m still trying to figure out
where that damn can opener went
that I used to have. I’m still looking
for stuff and making sure my kids
are OK and grieving the loss of my
brothers. But all the while, all it takes
is a napkin and a pen in a restaurant,
if it comes to me. Sometime, about a
year ago, we started feeling like we
were recovering.
“Then, synchronistically — which
is how everything comes at the most
beautiful times, in my opinion — the
Threadheads come,” she continues.
“They’re a large group of people
from all over the world who love
New Orleans music and asked various
artists, ‘What if we could get
you the money to make the record?’
And, get this: It’s a nonprofit record

“I can comfortably say that we were
the first family of pop rock & roll.”
Cowsills publicity photo, courtesy of Rebecca Presley
company. You pay them back what
they’ve donated — because they
do it at a risk; nobody knows if a
record’s going to sell or not — and
then you match 10 percent of whatever
monies you’ve borrowed and
give it to the Musicians’ Clinic. Then
you own your record, and the deal’s
over.
“And it was time — to get over
it, collect it up, put it in a box, tie up
the bow, and let it go. That’s what
this record is. It’s all the sorrow
and all the joy and everything that
came out of Katrina. And Lighthouse
is very different to me, musically.
I started hearing all kinds of crazy
things, like strings and pianos and
instruments I normally don’t hear
when I’m writing. That was interesting
and fun. I’ve said this before,
but Lighthouse is truly this journey
of a death. We have death; we have
grieving time; we have a funeral.
The funeral was the recording of
the record and putting it to rest. My
mission, on a therapeutic level, is
to move through this Katrina thing.
This next year or so, I’ll perform
this record, and hopefully it will be
stepping away from the more negative
aspects of Katrina and bringing
along the light of it — because there
was plenty of it.”
Joining Susan on Lighthouse are
longtime friends Jackson Browne,
session guitar ace Waddy Wachtel
(composer of the group’s “On My
Side”), and, on Barry’s “River Of
Love,” brothers Bob, Paul and John,
along with sister-in-law Vicki on harmonies.
Susan plays rhythm guitar throughout
her solo CDs and the CIV discs.
But she says, “It was a hard road to
get comfortable on an instrument and
sing and play. It was a real challenge,
but now I enjoy doing it. Certainly if I
hadn’t started playing guitar, writing
songs would be almost impossible.”
Her main guitars are two Taylors.
She explains how her 814ce came
into her hands: “At SXSW in Austin
four years ago, I was telling Brent
Grulke, who’s one of SX’s directors,
how my Nanci Griffith Taylor — an
amazing guitar that Peter had gotten
for me — was stolen during a loadout.
And Brent said, ‘Wait a minute,’
and gave me this guitar. It still had
the sticker on it!”
Her T5-C2 was also a gift. “My
brother Bob, who’s a big Taylor
fan as well, gifted me that two
Christmases ago,” she reminisces.
“I had switched around [the pickup
positions], and, to be honest, I had
no flippin’ clue what I was doing until
I got the DVD. So now it’s a whole
new world for me, because those
two guys [Taylor’s David Hosler and
Brian Swerdfeger] were so cute on
the video — and informative. I’ve got
to say, with every ounce of affection,
they gave guitar geeks rock-star status.
The position second to the neck
is the one I use for the Cowsills, and
the one in the middle I use when
Russ and I are playing a duo gig.
Depending on what songs I’m playing
with my band, I use the one closest
to the neck or the second one. It
always sounds great.”

Susan with Taylor T-5 Photo: Dennis Gardner

Of the qualities she looks for in
a guitar, she says, “I like bright with
a little warmth. I don’t like dark and
thuddy — not for my guitar. I want
to hear a little Byrds jingle-jangle. I
have a couple of songs I play in a
DADGAD tuning, and I cannot talk
and tune at the same time. It’s just
not entertaining. So I tune the 814
to DADGAD, because they’re more
acoustic-sounding songs.”
As for how her adopted hometown
is doing today, she stresses,
“Our local and federal governments
have been shamefully remiss in
assisting us in the way that they
should. But on a community level,
we’re doing awesome. We’ve taken
care of a lot of business ourselves
— as far as the stuff that would be
otherwise taken care of by our representatives.
We’re back to being
in each other’s backyards; trees are
blooming; grass is growing; and
music is thriving again. Thriving in
that everyone’s eating and bills are
somewhat paid, but financially it’s
not the same — as far as working at
home goes. But we as a people are
doing great.”
The journey of Lighthouse ends
with “Crescent City Sneaux,” copenned
by Susan and Russ. The
lyrics “I knew that I was going back
to a place where I know who I am”
float over breezy backing, before the
rhythm seamlessly shifts to a rousing
second-line groove as Susan references
NOLA landmarks like Jackson
Square and Café Du Monde, then
quotes such Big Easy classics as
“Iko Iko,” the Meters’ “They All Ask’d
For You,” and “When The Saints Go
Marching In,” finally rising to a crescendo
of the beloved Super Bowl
champions’ chant, “Who dat say dey
gonna beat dem Saints.” Proud, defiant,
and cathartic, it’s been called
“the best post-Katrina song” — an
argument that’s hard to counter.
“I had no intention of writing a
Katrina song,” Susan says. “It was
just something I wrote to keep myself
sane and remind myself that everything
was going to be OK. I played
it at all of my shows that first month
or so — pretty raw and tore up and
broken up. I think it was a good cryin-
your-beer song for the town to
embrace.”
It’s perhaps too easy a metaphor,
but, with it closing the program,
the CD as a whole is like a New
Orleans jazz funeral. “Yeah, man,” she
exclaims; “I guess I’m a home girl!
Seventeen years down there, and it’s
now just actually in my body. There
was so much love and compassion
and community that came out of
this, and I hope that is on the record
as well. I cannot tell you how many
wonderful gifts I received, emotionally
and spiritually and universally, from
this event happening, and I would
not change a thing, for my own personal
life. I take it as it comes, and
every single thing that’s happened
has brought me to this table and this
awesome chicken-fried steak.”
She smiles a smile that, to this
day, is equal parts pre-teen who can’t
wait to gobble up that last bite and
50-year-old mother who has learned
how to savor such simple pleasures.
For more information on Susan and
the Cowsills, visit susancowsill.com
and Rebecca Presley’s exhaustive
Cowsills fansite, bapresley.com/
silverthreads.

Taylor Guitar’s Wood and Steel, Summer Issue (Volume 64): http://www.taylorguitars.com/woodandsteel/
(pdf magazine download)

One Response to Wood and Steel Summer Issue
  1. Zvon
    April 2, 2013 | 2:50 pm

    Susan,
    Just reading this article and it looks like some of the paragraphs are out of order. I first noticed this when you bring up The Partridge Family. I was able to hunt thru and find where it supposed to continue, but I’m not sure where some of the other out of place segments belong. You might want to correct this.

    Great article and you sound like a very kool person.
    A old fan of the Cowsills,
    Warren

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