Gerry Wand earlier commented at length about his association with the late John Witmer. It struck me that he had a lot to say about the Canadian music scene in the 1970s and 1980s, having been the drummer for the rising Canadian recording act Fosterchild, among other bands. I asked if he would convey some of his recollections from those times. He has earlier conveyed his recollections as to how a Montreal-based musician starts to build his career in Vancouver and Edmonton. Here he recounts his time with the legendary Edmonton-based country artist, Bryan Fustukian, during the latter’s time with the late Billy Cowsill. Having achieved, with other family members, international success in the late 1960s as The Cowsills, Billy Cowsill had relocated to Canada by the mid 1970s, and had started to develop a career in Canadian country music, which continued until his death in Calgary, in 2006, at the age of 58.
Walking down the street with Billy Cowsill in Provost, Alberta, a typical small prairie town on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, must have been a sight for the locals. Billy played the part, and altered his walk to resemble John Wayne’s. As for myself, my silver leather Beatle boots and army shirt with the words Airborne and a lightning bolt patch on the sleeve seemed to turn a few heads. The three old timers sitting outside the hardware store just looked and stared but didn’t say a word. I’m sure they were thinking “Now there’s something you don’t see every day”.
We were there to back up Bryan Fustukian, an Edmonton based DJ and country artist who had some success with a song called “Phyllis”. I think we were called The Hair Trigger Cowboys at that time, though I can’t be certain. I looked like a fish out of water I’m sure, and I had never played a country song before in my life until our first night in Provost, but I told them I had, when I took the job. I needed the money. I didn’t lie though. I just said “Sure, I can play that stuff.”
The Fustukian connection came about from my networking among Edmonton musicians to find work, and Billy was a part of that band. I had heard of The Cowsills and the song “Hair”, and knew of Billy’s connection to them. He had achieved fame at a very young age and then, after several years, had decided to continue his music career in Canada.
His body language reminded me of that of an outlaw or a gunfighter, roaming from town to town, always looking over his shoulder. But he just a kid though, just a kid. He was also pretty road-hardened, at the same time. Billy knew the situation, and he coached me. “Just watch me,” he said, “And don’t make any fast moves.”
Provost seemed to really bring out the John Wayne in Billy. He sure could do a number on Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. He was a great vocalist and performer. Even the three old timers from the front of the hardware store got up and danced to that, when they came by the hotel to check out the band that night.
The band was Bryan Fustukian and Billy Cowsill with Dan Tapanila on guitar, Lee Stephens or Dave Rutter on bass (can’t remember which; both had played bass in the Cement City Cowboys), a pedal steel player from Nashville named Johnnie Allan and myself, on drums.
It could be that those guys never even played together before Provost, or not much, anyway. It kind of reminded me of a pick up band. Maybe they rehearsed a few Fustukian songs, but for the most part, Bryan and Billy would each take a turn singing a song, cover songs, and when each had sung two or three, it was time for a break and a stroll up to the bar. Quite honestly, it could have been a real drag. if Billy wasn’t there. He had his issues, but he was fun, and we were both about the same age, so I stuck close to him. He told me about the Partridge Family TV show being designed after The Cowsills and having been in Beverly Hills, and stuff like that. “It was a blast,” he said. No hard feelings about how it had ended, being fired by his own father.
Other than Provost, Alberta, we played at this place called the Old Timers Cabin Hall. It was just a big country dance hall right in Edmonton. We played a Friday and Saturday night there and sold it out both nights. Fustukian was pretty popular in Edmonton at the time. Billy showed up Saturday night with some stitches above his upper lip and he was all swollen. As the night went on, the stitches broke and he bled, but he sang all night. I guess at a party after the Friday night show, something had happened, though Billy was not specific as to details.
The timing would have been about 1978, as I played with them for a short while, before Sgt. Don Bailey called me about Fosterchild.
Bryan Fustukian and his band had a pretty good following throughout Alberta. Even at the end of some dusty road somewhere in rural Alberta, people use to just show up out of nowhere and fill up the bars in these little small town hotels, just to hear Bryan Fustukian and his band, perhaps called The Hair-Trigger Cowboys on a particular night—and with special guest, Billy Cowsill.
Postscript, June 12, 2012: Billy Cowsill’s last recorded sessions were contributing several Hank Williams songs, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to Sorrow Bound: Hank Williams Re-Examined (Ruby Records, 2006). A posted example from these sessions, which includes a retrospective collection of photos of Billy Cowsill:
[Postscript, September 8, 2014: YouTube videos come and go, often for unspecified reasons. Nothing found further on YouTube in relation to Sorrow Bound, though here is a detailed summary of contents, including particulars of Cowsill’s contributions.]
Plus an example of recent Bryan Fustukian music: