Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the tag “Marcia Goldenberg”

Cowlix All Over

The Cowlix after a gig for Ken Reynolds' family in 1992. From left, Marcia Goldenberg, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley, Melinda McCardell, Gretchen Schaefer. Photograph by Alden Bodwell/Hubley Archives.

The Cowlix after a gig for Ken Reynolds’ family in 1992. From left, Marcia Goldenberg, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Doug Hubley, Melinda McCardell, Gretchen Schaefer. The hand placements are interesting. Photograph by Alden Bodwell/Hubley Archives.

A prepositional exploration of the Two Big Years of the Cowlix, 1992-94.

Part I: All In

Why wait any longer for the bass player you want, when she’s standing in front of you?

— After Bob Dylan

After Ted Papadopoulos left the Cowlix, in late 1991 after several months and two gigs, rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer agreed to learn bass.

She picked it up pretty fast: I remember her sitting on the bed (we lived together then and still do) after just a month or two with my old Hagstrom, moving right along through “Linda, Linda,” a challenging Middle Easternish number by 3 Mustaphas 3.

Gretchen Schaefer, 1993. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen Schaefer, 1993. Hubley Archives.

For Gretchen, singer Marcia Goldenberg and me, this ended an on-and-off, two-year search that began with Steve Chapman’s departure in 1989 and careened through a wacky succession of bassy contenders. These included a teenager whose amp consisted of a bare chassis with wires sticking out all over it and an apparent crystal meth user who, backing Gretchen and me into a corner of our basement, maniacally insisted that we were all Nashville-bound.

“That time was a transitional guitar-playing period for me,” Gretchen says. “I hadn’t settled into any particular thing that I was comfortable with. So moving to the bass wasn’t a big wrench.

“I liked it. I liked the sound of the different parts that I would play, they had their own sort of melodic sense that was enjoyable. And the plucking came pretty naturally, because I’d done a lot of fingerpicking back in the day.”

Around the same time Gretchen was learning bass, we were reunited with Jon Nichols-Pethick, who, the previous spring, had played drums with us long enough to evoke a collective “Wow, he’s really good!” and then bugged out on a cross-country trip.

The ad that brought Jonathan into the Cowlix . . . a year later. (Hubley Archives)

The ad that brought Jonathan into the Cowlix . . . a year later. (Hubley Archives)

Jonathan and Nancy Nichols-Pethick had already planned their journey when he responded to the ‘Lix ad for a drummer. When the time came to announce his departure, “I felt so utterly sick at the thought of telling you about it that I considered just vanishing,” he says — “letting you forever wonder, ‘Whatever happened to that kid who played drums with us?’ But I sucked it up.”

At the time, we weren’t sure if Jonathan would return or not. We didn’t count on it, anyway. But with founding Cowlix drummer Ken Reynolds out of the picture once and for all by winter 1992, we were delighted to welcome the kid back despite all. Twelve years younger than Gretchen and I, he came from California and a musical background in bar-band rock, including stints in Portland with Jenny Woodman and a band called Split 50.

The Cowlix front line during the 1992 opening gig for the Moxie Men at Norton's in Kittery. From left, Melinda McCardell, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg, Gretchen Schaefer. Not visible is drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

The Cowlix front line during the 1992 opening gig for the Moxie Men at Norton’s in Kittery. From left, Melinda McCardell, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg, Gretchen Schaefer. Not visible is drummer Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

With the Cowlix, “I loved playing these songs I had known only peripherally at best and having to figure out how to do something other than slam my snare on 2 and 4,” he says. “Plus, I just liked hanging out with you all.” Jonathan was a melodic drummer. He made choices that somehow, on some subliminal level, supported more than the beat.

And he and Gretchen quickly found each other’s wavelength, forming a rhythm section that was one of the best things about the Cowlix. “I did feel that mutuality with Jonathan a lot, which was very fun,” says Gretchen. “He was a lot more attuned to that than I was initially, and then by the time I got my playing together enough to actually think of more than just my own concerns, it was really enjoyable.”

It’s something I haven’t thought about till now, but Jonathan was the first drummer I worked with since Ken, with whom I had first played in 1977. And Jon and Gretchen formed the first stable bass-and-drums pairing I had worked with since Ken and Steve.

Cowlix gone rogue: Melinda, Gretchen and Doug playing obscure folk music at a wedding in October 1993.

Cowlix gone rogue: Melinda, Gretchen and Doug playing obscure folk music at a wedding in October 1993.

Finally, during the autumn of 1991, violinist Melinda McCardell joined the Cowlix. A classically trained player who lived in Dayton, Melinda had approached us at a barn dance in 1991 (one of the year’s two Cowlix performances) and asked to try out, attracted by the folk music we were doing. So by spring 1992, the best-known, longest-lived Cowlix lineup was in place.

Part II: All Over the Map
Gretchen took this image of four 'Lix with our longtime friend and roadie Alden Bodwell. Hubley Archives.

Gretchen took this image of four ‘Lix with our longtime friend and roadie Alden Bodwell. Hubley Archives.

The band that followed my seven years with the Fashion Jungle, the Cowlix started out as a country band, but soon busted out of that corral. That’s largely on me. It took me 30 years, from the Curley Howard Band to today’s Day for Night, to learn the virtues of truth to genre, as opposed to the pleasures of stylistic promiscuity.

As the New Wavey Fashion Jungle was running out of gas, I was the one who pushed hardest for a turn to country music. And once the country Cowlix were established, I immediately started eyeballing other styles. It was nuts. About half of our repertoire was classic country — but then there was the folk music, from Quebec, Finland, Poland and Mexico. And the straight rock, like “Money” and “Slow Down,” and the ’60s hits like “There’s a Place” and “Here Comes the Night.” (We did “Paint It Black” with a hybrid ska beat and finger cymbals, played by Marcia.)

The Cowlix at Norton's, summer 1992: Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Gretchen Schaefer, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg and Melinda McCardell. We opened for the Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

The Cowlix at Norton’s, summer 1992: Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, Gretchen Schaefer, Doug Hubley, Marcia Goldenberg and Melinda McCardell. We opened for the Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men. Photo by Jeff Stanton.

And the alt stuff, like our punk version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Hearts Are Trump” by the German band Trio (with accordion and a tiny electronic keyboard, in homage to Trio, of “Da Da Da” fame) and a rendition of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” that owed a little something to the Velvet Underground.

The Cowlix' master repertoire list in 1993. "Nadine"? Yep, and with accordion. Hubley Archives.

The Cowlix’ master repertoire list in 1993. “Nadine”? Yep, and with accordion,too. Chuck, is that you? Hubley Archives.

We even billed our material as “Country & Eastern” music, the latter descriptor inspired both by our Right Coast sensibilities and by “Linda, Linda” — whose lyrics are in Hebrew and Arabic, which I learned phonetically. (I still don’t know what that song is about.)

This rampant eclecticism “was a lot of fun,” Gretchen says. But, she continues, “I felt doubtful that we connected especially well with audiences because of that.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that music-goers often go for one particular style. I don’t think we were very easily pigeonholed, and I think that was perhaps a detriment in the commercial sense. “But it was very fun to play all those different things, and it was challenging to try to get a different feel for them.”

Part III: Over and Out

If all the preceding blather about being eclectic sounds familiar, it ought to. Something else that didn’t occur to me at the time, but sticks out now like a sore thumb, was how closely the Cowlix resembled a previous band of mine, the Mirrors. Some of the similarities are superficial. Both bands, at their commercial peaks, had five members. Violin figured prominently in our sounds. I revived several Mirrors songs for the Cowlix repertoire.

Considering that neither band was professional, both worked quite a lot. In 1992-94, the ’Lix played several times at Geno’s, Portland’s “home of the best bands”; returned twice to the Murrays’ barn dance and once to the Maine College of Art Halloween party; and opened for Slaid Cleaves and the Moxie Men at Norton’s, in Kittery, among other dates. I will always remember the beginning of our performance at the Porthole, on Portland’s waterfront, in July 1993 — kicking off with Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” with such a big sound, the band sounding great, the spectators on stools at the linoleum counter looking impressed.

The product of my semester in a graphic design course in 1992, this poster template served us well for a year or two. Hubley Archives.

The product of my semester in a graphic design course in 1992, this poster template served us well for a year or two. Hubley Archives.

And I’m glad I don’t have the Porthole on tape. I don’t want to sully that memory with documented reality. I do have plenty of Cowlix on tape, and it has taught me, first, that someone should have taken my digital delay pedal away until I learned how to use it; and second, that my lead guitar playing was worst on the country music to which we had, however waywardly, pledged our troth.

This somehow brings me to the Mirrors-Cowlix similarities that struck deeper. One is very simple. Both bands started out congenially, united by excitement about the music and the promise of our shining goals. And in both cases, as our musical machine proved itself and our goals were met or reconsidered or just dropped, the fundamental chemistry went wrong. Marcia left the Cowlix in March 1994, after more than four years with the band. Melinda followed her out the door in May.

Then, of course, there was the eclecticism thing discussed above. Both bands loved musical diversity not wisely but too well. And in both cases, after a certain point, what started out as carefree boundary-busting exploration coalesced into something else altogether: the potential for a new direction and new energy that could be consummated only with the band that followed. For Gretchen, Jonathan and me, that band was the Boarders.

Hear six songs by the Cowlix, four original and two in the public domain. Although the Cowlix’ founding premise was a faithful, if slightly ironic, take on the classic country catalog, this successor band to the Fashion Jungle went rogue pretty much at the outset. A given ’Lix set could represent Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, X, David Lindley, Québécois and Polish folk songs, Syd Straw, Nick Lowe . . . you get the idea. We were essentially a covers band in the literal sense, if not with the bar-band implications that come with that term. Padded out with two folk songs in the public domain, this set contains virtually all the original material we ever did (“Shortwave Radio,” not represented here, popped up late in the Cowlix’ run). Personnel: Marcia Goldenberg, vocals and rhythm guitar; Doug Hubley, vocals, lead guitar and accordion; Melinda McCardell, violin; Jon Nichols-Pethick, drums; Gretchen Schaefer, bass and rhythm guitar.

Hubley Archives.

Hubley Archives.

  • All Over (J. Nichols-Pethick–D. Hubley) “It started, obviously enough I suppose, while I was drinking a beer and noticed my reflection in the glass,” recalls Jonathan, whose song this essentially is. “‘That’s kind of poetic,’ I thought, ‘in a country sort of way. I should try to write a song that incorporates that.’  . . . I started playing around with the phrases and came up with ‘It’s all over now and it’s all over town.’ I thought that had the requisite wordplay that I had come to admire about good country songs and I went from there.” In a version much different from ours, this later turned up in the repertoire of Scott Link’s band Diesel Doug & the Long-Haul Truckers, and appeared on their first CD. The recording was made at Tree Frog, a professional studio in Buxton, in early 1994, just before the Cowlix ceased to be. Copyright © 1992 by Jonathan Nichols-Pethick and Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Slow Poison (Hubley) I wrote “Slow Poison” early in the Cowlix’ run, in 1990, aiming for an Everly Brothers kind of thing. It was beyond my reach. In fact, I concluded that I could never write like that and, since we were performing so much country music that I felt unable to match, I stopped trying for a few years. We fooled around with “Slow Poison” (it was a slow foxtrot at first), tabled it, finally solidified it in 1992. This performance was recorded at the Maine College of Art 1992 Halloween Party, held in the Baxter Building in downtown Portland. This song lives on once again in the Day for Night repertoire with a nice through-harmony. Copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Un Canadien Errant (Antoine Gérin-Lajoie) Lamenting the misery of exile, this French-language number was written in 1842 by a French Canadian man following the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837–38. I heard it first by Leonard Cohen (who recorded it in a mariachi style, of all things) and later by Ian & Sylvia, among other folksingers. This early Cowlix selection was also one of the most durable in our repertoire. This is a rehearsal recording from 1992.
  • You Know How It Is (Hubley) As with Amtrak and train songs, great country lyrics are not waiting to be written about the work of a press-release writer at a small elite college. It was much easier to complain in song about working in the stockroom at the Jordan Marsh department store, which I was doing in 1978 when I wrote this. Even the title makes a virtue out of banality. This song started with the Mirrors and came back for the Cowlix. Recorded at the Murrays’ barn dance, August 1993. Copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Trouble Train (Hubley) There used to be a sign at the Androscoggin River in Topsham, Maine, that warned visitors to the riverbank that the water could rise suddenly due to operations at the nearby hydroelectric dam. That sign inspired this song, which is less a train song than a collection of metaphors for trouble. Another Tree Frog recording. Copyright © 1994 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
  • Wieczorna Róza-Waltz (Vitak-Elsnic Co.) Back in the ’80s, when I was first torturing the accordion (and any listeners in the vicinity), a member of the Delux Productions troupe lent me a funny little book of contrived Polish “folk” music. Hence this waltz.  This excerpt comes from a Cowlix date at the Murrays’ barn dance, August 1993.

“Notes From a Basement” text copyright © 2014 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Cowlix, Coming and Going

“Je t’aime” by Doug Hubley from “20 Years of a Basement,” Aug. 10, 1991. (“Je t’aime” copyright © 1983 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved. Visit Hubley Industries Music on Vimeo.)

The summer of 1991 was my 20th anniversary of publicly performing with rock bands, and I wanted to celebrate.

I took a very literal approach to the celebration. It would be a concert featuring not only my current band, the Cowlix, but — I hoped — members of previous bands. I didn’t invite everyone I’d ever played with, but beckoned the most fun and creative people, dating back to 1971 and Truck Farm, my first real band.

Of course, not every invitee could, or wanted to, take part.

So in the event, in addition to the Cowlix, what we wound up with was the Fashion Jungle of late 1984: bassist Steve Chapman; drummer Ken Reynolds; multi-instrumentalist Jim Sullivan, up from the Boston area; and keyboardist Kathren Torraca, who came back East from California. (Ken and I had first played together in the Curley Howard Band (1977), and Jim had joined us in the Mirrors (1979-80), which segued into the FJ in 1981.)

Gretchen and Doug express a basic tenet of their philosophy.

I titled the event “20 Years of a Basement” (pun intentional. And yes, “basement” is a recurring theme in my work, so sue me). We rented Sprague Hall, a popular old community hall under the trees in Cape Elizabeth, for Saturday, Aug. 10, 1991.

What an exciting day. We had grand plans. For the audience we invited everyone we could think of, and many of them even showed. We asked our friend Alden Bodwell to videotape it, with excerpts from the result presented in this post (and on this Archives page). We worked out a big finale, of Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” and Graham Parker’s “Pouring It All Out,” a signature number from the first bands Ken and I had been in, 14 years prior.

I still dream about setting up masses of musical equipment, walls of amps and drums and miles of cables. I think the elaborate rig we erected in Sprague Hall planted the seed for those dreams. It took most of the afternoon for us to prepare for the evening concert — there the longest were rhythm guitarist and my girlfriend Gretchen Schaefer, singer Marcia Goldenberg, Ken and also Steve, who contributed PA equipment.

Marcia Goldenberg of the Cowlix sings Billy Walker’s hit.

Steve ran the sound for the Cowlix sets, and turned the board over to Cowlix bassist Ted Papadopoulos for the Fashion Jungle numbers, which Steve played on. Steve, in other words, was sharing that responsibility with his replacement in the Cowlix. It was still a bit awkward even though nearly two years had passed since Steve left the band.

But in these chronicles, for whatever that’s worth, Ted is just a footnote. (Sorry Ted!) He was the last in a succession of would-be Cowlix bassists who came and went, lacking the interest, equipment, ability, maturity and/or mental stability, in at least one case, for the connection to click.

The “Québécois Medley” — “You Married My Daughter (But Yet You Didn’t)” and “St. Anne’s Reel” — stayed with the Cowlix from first to last.

Ted was a deejay and musician who relied on gigs for his income, unlike the rest of us dilettantes. Getting scant return from his investment of time with the ‘Lix, he was gone by September. He performed with us only twice, at Sprague Hall and at a barn dance that same month, at the York County home of a colleague of Gretchen’s.

And those two gigs were the Cowlix’ only performances in 1991.

Fiddler/saxophonist Jim Sullivan joined the Cowlix for several numbers, including the best-known country song ever to come out of Maine.

It was quite a contrast from one year to the next. In 1991, two measly jobs. In 1990, we had a recording session, a WMPG-FM spot and at least seven performances, including opening spots for the Sir Douglas Quintet and Bill Monroe — both at Portland’s best-ever night club, Raoul’s.

(The Sir Doug job was very fun. Doug Sahm was a sweet and generous guy, we played well and of course the SDQ, well, there you go! The Monroe date, another story. The bluegrass great was past his prime, his blowhard bus driver bombarded us with bombast, Raoul’s sound guy disliked us and the bluegrass fanatics downright despised us.)

The Cowlix with a song that never made the country charts.

Another 1990 date was a charity event on the beach at Small Point on an August evening. We were on a makeshift stage on the sand, playing rough country music as waves of humid salt air washed over us.

Playing for our supper (not) on the beach at Small Point. (Hubley Archives)

Playing for our supper (not) on the beach at Small Point. (Hubley Archives)

Our one condition for doing the show had been that they give us dinner. This well-heeled crowd really didn’t want to give us dinner. I think we each got a hot dog and they begrudged us that. That’s how you stay rich, I guess.

We opened for Darien Brahms and the Soul Miners in September 1990 at the Drydock, a waterfront bar in Portland that’s still going strong. It was pouring rain and the management made us carry our equipment up a fire escape to the second-floor performance room. (This experience inspired my song “Thousand Pounds of Rain.”) We played well, as I recall. The punk dimension of our country sound had coalesced.

The setlist from the Drydock. Note the paper and marking: By this point we were using "setlist forms," four-leaf self-duplicating forms that we had scavenged from somewhere.(Hubley Archives)

The setlist from the Drydock. Note the paper and marking: By this point we were using “setlist forms,” four-leaf self-duplicating forms that we had scavenged from somewhere. (Hubley Archives)

Our next drummer was in the Dry Dock audience, but we didn’t know that.

“I remember it well for two reasons,” says that musician, Jonathan Nichols-Pethick. “The first was that I was trying to recreate myself as a smoker . .  . and was dragging away awkwardly on a Lucky Strike when my good friend Jimmy McGirr, Darien’s bassist, turned to me during the Cowlix’s rendition of ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding’ and said, ‘That’s beautiful eh?’

“I had to agree. The second was that I made a mental note that I wanted to be in that band.”

Which finally came to pass. But how Jonathan came — and went — and then came back to stay, about a year after the Drydock, is another story.

Darien would again ask us to open for her, this time at a Halloween party at the Maine College of Art. All I remember about that is a giant conga line undulating around the room, in the old Portland Public Library building, while Ken, and I on accordion, played . . . I don’t know what. There was no conga-line music in the ‘Lix repertoire.

I never knew it was so easy to win fame: The Cowlix profiled by the Evening Express' Barry Mothes, 1990. Hubley Archives.

The Cowlix profiled by the Evening Express’ Barry Mothes, 1990. I meant to say, “An additional instrument.” Hubley Archives.

I’m sorry I don’t recall more of that gig, because it was Ken’s last for the next 10 months, although we didn’t know it at the time. And I also don’t remember why he left. Maybe he was just tired of country music, never his favorite genre in any case. And working second and third shifts at the post office was no day at Small Point

But he returned for “20 Years of a Basement” (and for Shyla and Bill Murray’s barn dance, where we met the fifth member of the 1992-94 Cowlix, fiddler Melinda McCardell).

And how did “20 Years” work out? The weather was sunny and humid for the biggest party we ever threw. I remember Gretchen, Steve, his wife Jeri and probably Ken standing outside the building passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, the descending August sun shining through the trees.

Between Darien Brahms and the Soul Miners and the worldly electropop of Too Much Truth, where did the garage-country of the Cowlix fit in? (Hubley Archives)

Our first non-open-mic gig in 1990. Between Darien Brahms and the Soul Miners and the worldly electropop of Too Much Truth, where did the garage-country of the Cowlix fit in? (Hubley Archives)

Never one to search for an original idea when there was one worth stealing, I copped Talking Heads’ conceit from the film Stop Making Sense and structured the program such that I would begin with a song, Gretchen would join me for the second number, Marcia would come in next and finally Ken, Ted — and in a special guest appearance Jim Sullivan, on fiddle and mandolin — would complete the set.

We alternated sets with the Fashion Jungle, which also began small (Steve, Ken and Doug) and got bigger. I wore a Col. Sanders tie for the country stuff and one of my skinny neckties for the FJ.

The Cowlix did well — four of the five players were solid while my singing and guitar were somewhat erratic. The reunited FJ, which had time for only a few short rehearsals after years apart, had shaky moments but produced gratifyingly long stretches of our old sound.

The 'Lix feeling licked in April 1991. (Hubley Archives)

The ‘Lix feeling licked in April 1991. (Hubley Archives)

There was something of a crowd, including my sisters and father and a strong delegation from the Corner. Some folks wanted to dance. Marcia kept turning the house lights off for the sake of atmosphere — we had no stage lights (us? Lighting? Really? Seriously?) — and Alden kept turning them back on for the sake of the video.

We closed with “Pouring It All Out” (having running out of time for “Manhattan”). We chased our friends out at midnight because the masters of Sprague Hall had strict rules about closing time.

And in the midst of all that, quietly and with barely a thought, we closed the book once and for all on the Fashion Jungle, 10 years after it began.

Watch video of the Fashion Jungle at “20 Years of a Basement.”

Hear (and buy) selections from the Fashion Jungle’s performances:

Copyright © by Douglas L. Hubley: “Je t’aime,” 1983; “Breaker’s Remorse,” 2010; “Little Cries,” 1983. All rights reserved.

“Rubber Hammer” copyright © 2013 by Steven Chapman, Douglas Hubley and Kenneth Reynolds. All rights reserved.

Copyright © by Steven Chapman: “Sporting Life,” 1982; “Curious Attraction,” 1984. All rights reserved.

“Peacetime Hero” copyright © 1981 by James Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Notes From a Basement text copyright © 2013 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.


The Cowlix: New Basement, No Bass-ment

Current and former Cowlix, 1993. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds, Steve Chapman, Jeri Chapman, Marcia Goldenberg, Doug Hubley. Jeff Stanton photo.

Current and former Cowlix, 1993. From left: Gretchen Schaefer, Ken Reynolds, Steve Chapman, Jeri Chapman, Marcia Goldenberg, Doug Hubley. Polaroid (not Instagram) photo by Jeff Stanton.

In November 1989, just about eight years after we first met him, bassist Steve Chapman left our band.

Or he could have said that the band left him.

Drummer Ken Reynolds and I had started working with Steve in 1981, when he showed up just in time to rescue our tottering Fashion Jungle. The FJ went on to generate a respectable local buzz with its sharp-edged, romantic original music through the 1980s.

But by the end of that decade, the edge was dulling and creative fatigue setting in. We responded with a turn toward classic country and other rootsy forms. At first it was almost frivolous, just a caprice; but I love old country music. Once in, I wanted to go deeper. (Still do.)

So by that November we were calling ourselves the Cowlix, and the FJ trio had expanded to a quintet. Rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer, my partner, joined during spring 1989. Singer Marcia Goldenberg came on board just weeks before we ended our musical association with Steve.


The Cronies at the Schaefer-Hubley home soon after we moved in. From left: Liz Torraca, Jeri Chapman, Doug Hubley, Gretchen Schaefer, Steve Chapman, Alden Bodwell (in a dramatic recitation) and Ken Reynolds. Jeff Stanton photo.

That November night the five of us convened at the little house that Gretchen and I had just bought on the outskirts of Portland. (At last, after all those years — a basement of our own!) For Marcia, it must have been strange to be so new on the scene and see so much history being unpacked. That baggage made the meeting tough, with plenty of hurt to go around. (But we have remained good friends with Steve and even play music with him from time to time.)

Much was said that night, but the bones of contention boiled down to two: Steve wasn’t enjoying the music, and couldn’t rehearse as often as we felt necessary.

So there we were. Steve is a really good musician and we felt that loss. Yet sometimes you respond like John Cleese’s Holy Grail knight whose limbs keep getting lopped off: Losing a member can have a bracing effect, up to a point. Though we auditioned bassists for the next year (a series of adventures worth a post of their own), we never let basslessness hold us back.

Just the opposite, in fact. Necessity being the mother of invention, or at least the mother of playing the hand you’re dealt, we set out to own our bassless sound. We branded it a virtue and never apologized for it. (And never mentioned it again after Gretchen started playing bass, in 1992.)

From a contrarian standpoint, the timing was good. Commercial music in general and country in particular — remember the “hat acts”? — were getting nothing but slicker and shinier. We, on the other hand, mustered up a big rough instrumental sound driven by Ken’s powerhouse drumming and Gretchen’s straight-on strumming. I wove my guitar into the gaps, floating between bass-ish and lead parts on a miasma of digital delay.

An early Cowlix songlist. Hubley Archives.

An early Cowlix songlist. Note the categorizing by dance style, including pogo. Hubley Archives.

Then there was Marcia. I learned about her through our mutual friend Suzanne Murphy — during the course of an interview, ironically, for a story I was doing about the Downtown Lounge, a scene that had inspired the FJ.

Marcia brought a lot of energy, a strong voice with a retro country feel and a backlog of good material she was eager to try. After the Fashion Jungle, where a single lead voice and minimal supporting parts was the order of the day, I welcomed the chance to do two-part through-harmonies.

With Steve, we had already put together a country song portfolio that, going thin and wide rather than deep and focused, represented Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, the Everly Brothers, Ian Tyson and others. Now we dug a little deeper.

An unrevealing image of a Cowlix performance on the beach at Small Point, Maine. Hubley Archives.

An unrevealing image of a Cowlix performance on the beach at Small Point, Maine, August 1990. Hubley Archives.

We picked up songs by Bill Monroe and Lefty Frizzell, and more by Hank, the Everlys and Cash. Marcia’s contributions included the Patsy Cline hit “Seven Lonely Days” and Billy Walker’s excellent “Ancient History.”

We revived a few from Ken’s and my old band the Mirrors — notably classics received third-hand via Gram Parsons like “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes” and “That’s All It Took,” as well as Parsons’ cool adaptation of the R&B song “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (which popped up for a third time in the early repertoire of Gretchen’s and my current band, Day for Night. You can’t keep a good song and well-learned accordion part down.)

An early Cowlix song list in Gretchen's handwriting.

An early Cowlix song list in Gretchen’s handwriting. “P.O.H.M.” is “Poor Old Heartsick Me.”

We also took a swing at the Louvin Brothers, those paragons of vocal harmony and sibling disharmony, who were so influential on later musicians like Parsons.  During this phase I walked into the sainted record store Amadeus Music, on Fore Street in Portland, and grandly announced, “I want to buy the entire Louvin Brothers catalog.”

They were able to come up with two LP compilations. We learned three songs by Charlie and Ira and thought we were pretty cool. (Dilettantes! Having pretty much mined out the Louvins’ secular catalog, Day for Night secretly wishes we were religious so we could take on their gospel work. “Satan is real . . .”)

Classic country was the focus, but stylistic promiscuity is hard to shake off and we started looting other genres almost from the start. Some cozied up easily with country music — folk-dance tunes, for example. My accordion playing had become somewhat presentable, and we used it on a few folk instrumentals from Québec (and later Poland, Mexico and Finland).

Covering Maine music as a journalist had introduced me to a broad range of folk styles, which taught me how important sheer danceability was to musical forms other than rock. I became preoccupied with giving audiences dance music — probably a reaction against the FJ, which had always had a hard time getting people onto the floor. These two-beats and waltzes filled that bill nicely.

Half the Cowlix and all of the future Day for Night. Hubley Archives.

Half the Cowlix and all of the future Day for Night, circa 1990. Hubley Archives.

A few rock songs made it into the mix too, chosen carefully to sound good despite the lack of bass. For instance, Them’s “Here Comes the Night,” whose two-beat sections sounded good with my Luther Perkins boom-chick guitar; and the Beatles’ “There’s a Place,” which had a nice harmony. Our biggest stretch was “Around My Heart,” by X, a band with whom we felt a strange affinity. We sounded punkish enough and had a big enough beat to make it work.

In short, we sounded like nobody else at a time when country music was enjoying one of its periodic boomlets. Greater Portland was engulfed in an Americana wave at the time, and our peers were bands like Cattle Call, Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers, the Piners and Slaid Cleaves’ Moxie Men. If each had a distinctive niche, none was more distinctive than ours.

In those early days of the Cowlix, a band that would last until 1994, I felt the same kind of missionary zeal that had been so energizing at the launch of the FJ. Dance music! Good country, not schlock à la the Mirrors! The bass-free sound! The conceptual rigor was shaky, but the excitement was real.

And we knew we were on the right track, because people kept giving us work.

Hear the Cowlix performing one of our rare originals, my “Slow Poison,” in a rough rehearsal recording from 1990.

“Slow Poison” copyright 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

“Notes From a Basement” copyright 2013 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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