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When a child star grows up

By Nancy Dunham
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 23, 2009

For those of a certain age, it's almost inconceivable that Susan Cowsill is planning a 16th birthday party for her daughter.

It sounds so corny, but wasn't it just yesterday that Cowsill was the young girl we all wanted as our BFF? As the one daughter in the Cowsills -- the real-life musical family of the 1960s that inspired "The Partridge Family" television series -- she was sunny and happy and funny and adorable, and we all loved her. Of course, now that we're all older and hopefully wiser, we realize that life probably wasn't quite as easy as Susan and her brothers (Barry, Bill, Bob, Paul and John plus mom Barbara) made it appear in fan magazine interviews and during television appearances when they sang such hits as "Hair" and "Indian Lake."

"We really have a great love for each other," Cowsill said of her relationship with her surviving brothers, who still perform with her as the Cowsills. "It's a fluke that we are so well-adjusted. You either have a good survival technique or you don't. No disrespect to my parents, but they really didn't know what they were doing" in the music business.

The same arguably can't be said for Susan. The youngest Cowsill, 50, has carved out a solid niche for herself not just in her adopted home of New Orleans, but in the blues-tinged American rock scene.

Despite her rich background in music that included 10 years as a member of the rock band the Continental Drifters, Susan didn't fully plunge into solo work until the 2005 release of "Just Believe It," which won critical and popular success. Many critics were especially awed by Susan's rich, gutsy voice, which blends Bonnie Raitt's grittiness with Sandy Denny's passion.

The album was so popular that Cowsill has had it remixed and released a new version.

"This version is very fun, very different, very cool," Cowsill said from her home. "Anybody who has the original one will definitely tell the difference."

Cowsill's sense of humor and light, easy style bubble as much as ever despite the sorrows she has endured the past few years. When Hurricane Katrina hit, it killed her brother Barry and destroyed her home and its contents, including priceless Cowsills memorabilia.

In a way, Cowsill almost immediately contributed to the city's healing. Her song "Crescent City Snow," which she had written about a rare Christmas snowfall in New Orleans, became the anthem for Katrina survivors.

The storm also destroyed the hopes of many musicians in the area who struggled to rebuild their careers. Now with funding from New Orleans-based group the Threadheads, Cowsill has recorded her second album.

The organization, which also underwrote other albums by New Orleans musicians, began as a group of jazz-fest buddies who would hold private playing parties for local artists, Cowsill said.

The label formed when members of the Threadheads nudged area musicians to make records and were continually told that no money was available.

"This is the album I envisioned many years ago, before Katrina," Cowsill said of "Lighthouse," the soon-to-be released album funded by Threadheads. "After Katrina, it really has taken this long to get it together. This record is very different, not just a pop tune after a pop tune but a lot of different instrumentation with cellos, violins, pianos. We really wanted to take special care to make it right."

Cowsill also continues to work on a series of CDs called "Covered in Vinyl." The series began when Cowsill and her band would play live reinterpretations of hits from artists including the Jackson 5 and Fleetwood Mac. The shows were played only in New Orleans, and soon fans asked for recordings.

"We aren't a tribute band," Cowsill said. "It's a way to revisit some of the hits. I think people really enjoy different versions of those songs. Even some who are diehard Elton John or Clash fans . . . we did very different versions of some of their songs and fans really dug it."

Now Cowsill is looking for other ways to use her music to help others, including those who've had rocky childhoods or experienced abuse.

"I'd really like to find a way to bring a more purposeful meaning to our world through this avenue," she said. "I am so lucky to have the status of semi-high-profile musician. I want to use that as a way to be a part of making things better. That would be the be all and end all to me."

Dunham is a freelance writer.

The Susan Cowsill Band Appearing Monday with Musikanto at Iota, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Show starts at 8:30 p.m. Tickets: $12; no advance sales; 703-522-8340; http://www.iotaclubandcafe.com. The Download: For a sampling of this artist's music, check out: From "Just Believe It": "Who Knows Where the Times Goes" "Talkin' " "Nanny's Song" From "Continental Drifters": "Mixed Messages" Susan Cowsill

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