Cowan and six other men, now all in their 50s and 60s and living in various parts of the U.S., found their way back to the university in April 2008 for two heady days of rehearsal and a 20-song reunion show that made them wonder — could they get back together and do it all over again?
Well, yes and no. The Ship released its fifth album, "All Come Home," last December, but none of the musicians — Cowan, James Barton, Todd Bradshaw, Rick Frank, Mark Hamby and Billy Panda — ever sat down in a studio together to record. Taking advantage of free recording software, e-mail and other technology only dreamed of during the band's heyday, the musicians laid down 12 original tracks in just over a year, working together remotely.
"We probably sent 20 to 30 e-mails a day," Cowan said. "I just didn't have that work ethic when I was 22."
Typically, the lead singer for a given song would record one vocal track and one instrumental track and send it to the group. Then, everyone would try to add something. The result is an album with a wide range of styles and personalities represented, something that's been true since the beginning.
"One of the things that really distinguishes us is that we have so many different sounds," Cowan said. Back in the '70s, that meant "people couldn't take our songs and just immediately do them."
The first four songs on the album have four different lead singers. For the last song and title track, "All Come Home," all six album contributors sing in harmony. The percussion is synthesized, but all other instruments heard on the album, including flute, saxophone, electric bass and mandocello, were recorded by the band. Most songs have 15 to 20 tracks each, Cowan said.
With so much variety, some conflict was inevitable. "We would have disagreements, and we would just back away for a day or two," Cowan said.
For Cowan, the hardest part was timing his recording so the neighbors opening their garage door couldn't be heard in the background, he said. "That was my biggest fear."
Hamby, who now runs a brokerage firm in Seattle, pointed out another complication. "It's weird to put out songs we've never really performed," he said.
As for reconnecting with the old music, Hamby said, "I got it out and thought, hey, some of this stuff is halfway decent."
Today, Hamby performs with a vintage party band, but he had lost touch with songwriting until the reunion. "Without a group waiting for you, songwriting is a silly exercise," he said.
Back in the day, the band's name came from its founding effort, a 1970 folk opera called "The Ship" that was the reason a handful of independent campus singers/songwriters got together. After working on those first songs for five straight months, the band started performing together in 1971.
The shows "sold out like that," Cowan said with a snap of his fingers. The band was able to charge $3 a ticket, which he said was "on the high end for concerts back then."
The band stood out for a few reasons, Cowan said. "We had the really lush harmonies, we rehearsed a lot, we were all songwriters and we could all sing lead," he said.
Before long, The Ship had a recording contract with Elektra Records, which Cowan called "the recording label for folk music." From the Illinois cornfields, the group traveled to a studio on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles, recording alongside some of their musical idols such as Bread.
Cowan left the group in 1973, but a few, including original members Hamby and Panda, kept at it until 1977. In that period, the group released another album, recorded a handful of advertising jingles and played gigs around the Midwest. Times were lean.
"Next week we could be plumbers," one band member was quoted as saying in a 1972 Chicago Tribune article. The story was headlined "The Ship: Still no breeze, but still afloat."
Hamby remembers getting up early on Saturdays to hear the group's Kellogg's jingle. "Then we'd get royalty checks the next month and put food on the table," he said.
Then, in 1977, one member got a permanent job offer he couldn't pass up. "We looked at each other and said, well, maybe the jig is up," Hamby said. "Maybe it was time to think about what to do with at least part of the rest of our lives."
"It was friendly," he added. "We said it's been great, see you whenever."
More than 30 years later, "April On The Prairie," the first song on the new album "All Come Home," reflects the group's appreciation of its second chance. "This is the story of our getting back together," Cowan said.
Later, "Take A Number" reminds listeners that everyone's got problems. "It's the ultimate party tune," Panda said. "It sounds like we got drunk and went to a club and played."
Panda, who majored in music, now works as a studio musician in Nashville.
"The soft tissue eroded, but it was astonishing how easy it was to fall back into our old rhythms," he said. "I hadn't talked to some of these guys since 1975, and it just didn't matter."
No touring or concerts are in the works, and the band hasn't discussed the possibility of another album, Cowan said. For now, "All Come Home" is available for $12.97 through CD Baby. There's a link on the band's website at theshipmusic.com, which also lists earlier members of the band who didn't take part in the reunion recording.
"We're not going to make our money back," Cowan said, "but that's never been the purpose of it."
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