While the exodus of two key members might signal the disbanding of many groups, personnel changes have been a constant since the formation of rock group Continental Drifters in 1991. The group’s more recent departures include singer/songwriter Susan Cowsill and drummer Russ Broussard in 2002. “Over the Drifters’ decade-long existence,” wrote Keith Spera in the Times-Picayune, “the forces of nature have sometimes seemed to conspire against them.” The musical bond formed within the group, however, has given the Continental Drifters an identity that expands beyond their individual members. Despite personnel changes, the remaining members soldiered on, meeting concert obligations and promising to continue.
Between 1991 and 1994, the Continental Drifters slowly jelled into a multitalented folk-rock powerhouse. Carlos Nuccio and Ray Ganucheau formed the first version of the band in Los Angeles in 1991 and performed a regular Tuesday night show at Raji’s in Hollywood. By 1993 the band had relocated to New Orleans with Mark Holsapple, formerly of the dB’s, his wife Susan Cowsill, and former Bangle Vicki Peterson. “The thing about New Orleans,” Cowsill told Andrew Marcus of the New Times LA., “is it’s a slower land and you’re more inspired—no, encouraged — just by the wind to sit down for a minute.” When Ganucheau dropped out due to health problems, Robert Mache joined and filled out the lineup.
The transplanted band recorded their self-titled debut in 1994 for the Monkey Hill label. Consisting of originals and covers, The Continental Drifters was a strong first outing. “Despite critical acclaim,” noted Pamela Murray Winters in Dirty Linen, “and an enthusiastic fan following, the Continental Drifters fell under the radar for many years.” Lack of recognition, however, suited the band’s casual approach to recording and performing. ‘This is a band that,” Holsapple told Neal Weiss in No Depression, “for all intents and purposes, if it stayed in a living room and played to itself for the rest of its collective, born days, it still wouldn’t be too bad. We really just enjoy each other’s music immensely.”
The Continental Drifters’ progress nonetheless seemed momentarily stalled after the first album. Nuccio dropped out in 1996, and Holsapple took time off to tour with Hootie and the Blowfish. While the band temporarily stabilized with the addition of drummer Russ Broussard, members were frustrated with the lack of interest shown by the major American record labels. In 1997 they recorded a seven-inch single for Black Dog, with “Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway” on one side and Fairport Convention’s “Meet on the Ledge” on the other. The band then embarked on a national tour, occasionally opening for Hootie and the Blowfish, to support the single.
The Continental Drifters recorded their second album, Vermilion, over a 15-day period in March of 1998, and the album was released on the German label, Blue Rose, in May. They began to generate interest in the United States after their March 1999 appearance in the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas. The band signed with Razor & Tie and in June of 1999, 15 months after its German release, Vermilion was released in the United States.
The album was greeted enthusiastically. “The Continental Drifters stand straight and sing into the light,” wrote Rolling Stone, while David Goodman of Modern Twang noted that the album “wraps up the Continental Drifters’ trademark roots rock in one neat package.” The band’s strength, critics agreed, lay in its diversity. Holsapple, Peterson, and Cowsill sang lead and with Mache wrote material, allowing the band to serve as a melting pot for folk, rock, and R&B. “Graceful, poetic, intimate and deliciously harmonized…,” noted Weiss, “Vermilion demonstrates not only the strength and reach of the band, but also its uncanny ability to unify the vision of four songwriters and six strong musical personalities.”
Many fans feared that the Continental Drifters would break up when Cowsill and Holsapple’s marriage ended in 2000, but both members remained committed to the band. “One hopes,” wrote Sensible Sound, “that the Continental Drifters’ band ills, the brand of tension which has produced some of rock’s better moments, are not a permanent malady and that their music can continue to survive despite the personal setbacks.” The band appeared at a number of venues, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and played a
Members include Russ Broussard (joined group, 1996; left group, 2002), drums; Susan Cow-sill (born on May 20, 1960, in Newport, RI; left group, 2002), guitarist, vocals; Ray Ganucheau (left group, 1994), guitar; Peter Holsapple (born on February 19, 1956), piano, organ, harmonica, vocals; Robert Mache (joined group, 1994), guitar; Carlo Nuccio (left group, 1996), drums, vocals; Vicki Peterson (born on January 11, 1960, in Los Angeles, CA), guitar, vocals; Mark Walton, bass.
Group formed, 1991; recorded self-titled debut on Monkey Hill, 1994; issued single, “Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway,” 1997; released Vermilion on Germany’s Blue Rose, 1998; signed contract with Razor & Tie after an appearance at the South by South-west (SXSW) festival, rereleased Vermilion in U.S., 1999; issued Better Day and Listen, Listen, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Razor & Tie, P.O. Box 503, Village Station, New York, NY 10014, phone: (212) 473-9173, website: http://www.razorandtie.com. Website —Continental Drifters Official Website: http://www.continentaldrifters.com.
number of dates in Germany. Individual members also worked on material throughout 2000 in anticipation of the group’s next album. On January 2, 2001, the Continental Drifters assembled at Dockside Studio near Lafayette, where they had recorded Vermilion. “We’re so used to working together,” Mark Walton noted to Winters, “that we went in like we have a job to do—we only had 17 days to finish it. We lived at the studio, we finished it, and it was done.”
Once again, the critics responded enthusiastically. “With their third disc…,” noted Sensible Sound, “the Continental Drifters have finally become a band at least equal to, and maybe even greater than, the sum of their parts.” Fans received a pleasant surprise when another album was issued five months later. Released on Blue Rose,Listen, Listen revealed the band’s roots in British folk rock. Recorded for German radio in July of 2000, the album included seven songs written by Fairport Convention alumni Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson. “Think of the Continental Drifters,” wrote Winters, “as a sort of American Fairport Convention.”
While mainstream success has eluded the Continental Drifters, the band seems nonplussed. “Sure, the band welcomes success…,” wrote Weiss, “but it’s more about chasing their muse.” The group’s ten years of shared experience have also given the Drifters a bond, and they often refer to one another as an extended family. “This band has, in more than one way, at more than one moment, saved probably all of our lives,” Peterson told Winters. “You could be having the worst day and get onstage and something’s gonna happen in the middle of that show that’s gonna make you so glad that you’re alive and so glad that you’re in that moment that it’s almost spiritual.” This closeness seems to assure that no matter what the future might hold, the Continental Drifters will continue to pursue their distinctive vision of American folk rock.
Continental Drifters, Monkey Hill, 1994; reissued, Razor & Tie, 2001.
Vermilion, Blue Rose, 1998; reissued, Razor & Tie, 1999.
Better Day, Razor & Tie, 2001.
Listen, Listen, Blue Rose, 2001.
Goodman, David, Modem Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide & Dictionary, Dowling Press, 1999.
Dirty Linen, August/September 2001, p. 29.
No Depression, September/October 1999, p. 39.
Rolling Stone, December 16, 1999, p. 217.
Sensible Sound, November/December 2001, p. 66.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), June 15, 2001.
“Continental Drifters,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 6, 2002).
“Hate the Drifters,” New Times L.A., http://www.newtimesla.com/issues/2001-06-07/music.html/1/index.html (June 26, 2002).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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