The new two-disc collection remembers the band's early days and the covers they played throughout their career. Members of the band reflect on those songs.

continental drifter press photo
The Continental Drifters

The Continental Drifters were inevitable at a number of levels. Why wouldn’t musicians with similar record collections want to get together to write, sing and play? People do it every day in every city in America. In their case though, the city was Los Angeles so the quality and profile of the players were elevated, but the same basic impulses that lead to every band led to The Continental Drifters.

A band full of singers and songwriters isn’t made to last, though. In the case of the Drifters, their songs held together for coherent sets and albums, but the outside world found it hard to focus on the group concept. People who were Bangles’ fans thought of the band as Vicki Peterson’s group; fans of The dB’s thought of them as Peter Holsapple’s group. Those who remembered The Cowsills thought The Continental Drifters were Susan Cowsill’s band. Because it was everybody’s band, it didn’t entirely satisfy any of those constituencies.  

The Continental Drifters left behind four albums and an EP of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny covers, Listen Listen, which is included in its entirety on Drifted: In the Beginning & Beyond is a new two-CD set that dedicates one disc to the band in the early ‘90s and a second to cover versions it played over the duration of the band’s career.

Disc one draws on the belated Nineteen Ninety Three album—the first one recorded and last one released when it came out in 2003—and demos and alternative mixes. I tend to think of those as the seeds and stems of albums, so it’s a pleasant surprise how well those versions hold up. Without the original releases beside me to refer to, the early versions of “Who We Ware, Where We Live” and “The Rain Song” are perfectly satisfying, and I now want to hear the mix of “Dallas” that they chose over the one I hear. Like The Band--an easy reference point--a lot of American music comes together in their recordings, and like The Band, many of the tracks hang together with an appealing looseness, here thanks to Carlo Nuccio's drums. 

The covers disc is a reminder of how playful The Continental Drifters could be in concert. There are tasteful, wise selections such as Gram Parsons’ “A Song for You,” Neil Young’s “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” and the Fairport Convention songs, but there also versions of such pure pop songs as Alive and Kicking’s “Tighter, Tighter” and The Hollies’ “I Can’t Let Go.” Holsapple does his best to be a soul singer on Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back the Hands of Time,” and the live version of The Beach Boys’ “Farmer’s Daughter” includes Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson bantering with the crowd during the song’s intro. No matter how canonical (or non-canonical) the selection, they took each song seriously so the pleasure doesn’t end with the first chorus when the novelty wears off. 

The Continental Drifters will play a family reunion show at Tipitina’s September 12, and I approached all the Drifters for memories related to songs on Drifted. Here’s part one; the CD will go on sale tomorrow, and the story will finish then.   

Ray Ganucheau

"The Mississippi" - I had an idea for a song about the Mississippi River called "Sophie's Pleasant Experience" that I played for Carlo around the time the band first got together in L.A. A sort of homesick blues about missing everything back home in south Louisiana. Carlo finished out the lyrics and arrangement and added the M-I crooked letter children's rhyme bit to the song and re-titled it "The Mississippi." It was one of the first songs we played as a band. 

Mark Walton

"The Mississippi" is the song that set the band on its path, it is the cornerstone/the foundation of the Continental Drifters. The moment I played "The Mississippi" in Ray's basement, just Carlo, Ray and myself, I was hooked. The swampy, groove-laden, sentimental ode to missing home. The only song that has been in the Continental Drifters canon since the inception of the band. We always knew it was a powerhouse and that is why in 1992 we recorded it three different times. "The Mississippi" was our first ever release, a single on the SOL label. 

Ray was the one to set the tone of the song with his beautiful, powerful voice. When Ray left the band, Carlo decided to take on the lead vocals and the song continued to shine and to be a fan favorite. Then Carlo exited. By this time, it was such a staple of our live shows that Susan suggested she sing it. The rest of us, knowing the importance of "The Mississippi," agreed to keep the flame going and decided to to keep alive and in our repertoire. 

Vicki Peterson

I'd forgotten that we ever recorded “Who We Are Where We Live” in its nascent state.

Susan and I [then performing as The Psycho Sisters] were speaking about the process of dealing with dead loved ones. She said, "It's who we are and where we live."  It occurred to me that we were like members of an exclusive club, a community where all have in common the experience of something painful, possibly beautiful. The song was written in twenty minutes.

When The Psycho Sisters were in the process of being absorbed, body and soul, into The Continental Drifters, we arrived armed with "Rain Song" and "Who We Are...." Theoretically, these were Psycho songs, but we showed them to the guys and they became beloved and perfectly assimilated Drifters songs. This early version of "Who We Are.." is a quick sketch of what eventually became a favorite late-in-the-set live jam.

Peter Holsapple

"Invisible Boyfriend" - Vicki lost her long-time fiancé to cancer shortly before she began attending Continental Drifters' shows at Raji's. I think it was probably very therapeutic for her to lose herself in the music onstage, but it was evident that she was aching terribly. She always seemed to have a lingering presence around her, even when she was with Susan or anyone else. 

I had joined the band after Danny McGough's departure with the request that I a) play no guitar, b) sing no lead vocals, c) write no songs, and d) only play organ and piano. It was in my mind that I could better my keyboard chops by restricting my participation this way. That worked for about a week, I think. "Invisible Boyfriend" was one of those songs that came all at once, lyrics and chords, and I made a demo on my eight-track Tascam 388.

It became a foregone conclusion that the song was destined for the Drifters' canon, but I still didn't want to sing it. Gary Eaton stepped up and brought his majestic tenor to the narrator's voice, and only after he left the band did I begin singing it with The Continental Drifters. As a song, I'd have to say it's one of the favorites among what I've ever written because I think the story was succinctly told from beginning to end. Not every song has worked as well.

Carlo Nuccio

I don't exactly remember the first time I heard it, but I am sure that "Dallas" had an earth-shattering effect on me, and I wanted to work with the guy who wrote it. That guy is Gary Eaton. 

I was in a band for years that had pretty much stalled, so when Gary asked if I would play with his latest effort, I agreed. Gary, his then-girlfriend Debbie Dexter and Greg "Smog Vomit" Boaz were playing out under the name The Devil Squares with another drummer. The drummer had recently left the outfit and asked me if I could – on short notice – do a gig at The Gaslighter with them. I accepted. 

We met at a rehearsal place that was much like all the other dumpy Hollywood joints. A big warehouse fractured into many small rooms. These rooms--walls generally covered with carpet, old corrugated egg cartons and graffiti of the latest, soon to be defunct, big thing--was what you got for around $13 an hour. So, there, we set up our gear and yours truly began banging away in an attempt to learn a lot of material in a short time, The Devil Square's repertoire. 

When we started to address one of Gary's newer songs, "Dallas," it didn't take a second to realize that the lyrics were about an event that had taken place on my third birthday. The assignation of John F. Kennedy. Yes, my third birthday is--and for all of time will be--known as "the end of innocence."

The song is about Gary's recollection of the events of that cool November day in 1963 and, although he was in Wichita Falls and I in New Orleans, he had nailed it. I'm still flooded with emotion at the mere sound of the guitar intro. It took some time, before I could play that number without going too deep inside my head to hit damn drums. 

Friday: The Continental Drifters on cover versions.