On Blue Rodeo’s debut album, Outskirts, the liner notes specify the singer of each of the 10 songs – “Greg” on Joker’s Wild and Rose-Coloured Glasses, “Jim” on Try and Rebel, and so on and so forth. Their voices being unique, that kind of notation would never be required again.
That was in 1987. In 2012, Greg Keelor is learning the chord progression to a new Blue Rodeo tune, When the Truth Comes Out. What kind of song is it? It’s a Jim Cuddy song, bittersweet-style. Cuddy himself is reading a newspaper on a stuffed leather chair. We’re at Keelor’s farm northeast of Toronto, where the atmosphere is homey, warm and as charismatically scruffy as its long-time owner, with all the wires and instruments and amplifiers not subtracting an inch from the house’s well-worked-in vibe and scattered bric-a-brac style.
Downstairs, someone’s in the kitchen making grilled sandwiches (no mayonnaise for Cuddy). There’s an old, blue Bell upright piano here, with shelves holding records by Dylan, Bobby Darin and Gene Clark over there. Judging by the paperback in the untidy bathroom, Keelor is sporadically enjoying West of Dodge, a collection of short stories by Louis L’Amour.
But there’s work being done here – the band, now part of the national fabric, is recording the material for an album to come out next fall. Blue Rodeo is not resting on its laurels; it is going about its business in its own peculiar way.
Upstairs, for instance, a master bedroom serves as the recording control room, and the sound of another new song, Keelor’s In Our Nature to Fly, is now coming through the speakers. It’s hazy, languid and haunting. “That vocal is really nice,” Cuddy says. Keelor then looks at me. “Everyone has an opinion here,” he says. “Just put on your suit of armour and get ready for the critique.”
The discussion of the moment has to do with a keyboard overdub. The plush Hammond organ sound isn’t working. Drummer Glenn Milchem suggests that the organ part weave in and out, rather than sticking with a blanket effect. An Ace Tone keyboard is tried next, and while its reedier, spookier tone is an improvement, Keelor wants an even “thinner” sound. The reverb is turned down on the next take. “Perfect,” says Cuddy. “Do it again.”
The band has also just released a boxed set, Blue Rodeo: 1987-1993, which includes two rarities discs and remastered versions of the band’s first five albums, plus a re-mixed edition of Outskirts. An essay written by Nerve magazine’s Philip Martin in 1986 that comes with it is a dreamy evocation of the Queen Street scene in which Blue Rodeo was a central part. “It’s a simple community we have here,” reads one bit, in the general voice of the band as a whole, “but we think it works.”
With In Our Nature to Fly put to rest, Keelor and Cuddy sit down on a couch to talk about the band’s legacy. The pair, the ying and yang of Canadian alt-country legend, are of two minds here. “I find it difficult to talk about ourselves in those terms,” says Keelor, speaking in the room where he suffered a serious fall in 1995. (Set high on stilts is the loft bed he tumbled from, damaging his ribs and contributing to a period of ill health that involved his diabetes as well.) Does he ever receive feedback on Blue Rodeo’s legacy from younger artists, such as Cuff the Duke or crooner Justin Rutledge? “I do,” he says, “but I feel self-conscious about it. If that kind of conversation does start, I try to sidetrack it.”
It would be more difficult for Cuddy to avoid the question if he wanted to, but he does not. “It’s in my nature to look back,” he explains, mentioning the boxed set and this year’s induction of the band into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame as triggers for his recollections. And his son Devin (born in 1987, the year of Outskirts’ release) is a fledgling musician on the same Queen Street strip where his father began.
“I tell young bands to play hard, but to try not to do it a living right away, so you don’t have to do the stupid gigs and cover songs,” Cuddy says. Mostly, though, he tells upstart artists to ignore Blue Rodeo or anyone else. “Do what you do,” he says simply enough, “in the same way we blithely went ahead with what we thought was our own road map. It wound up as a very common road map, but we thought it was our own.”
Later, as Cuddy sets up in a smaller bedroom to re-record a guitar part he wasn’t happy with, I speak with Keelor outside the house. He bought the place in the early 1990s; the former owner gave him a nice deal on this 14-acre spread near Bowmanville. He owns another 200 acres across the road. What does he do with all that ground and all those poplars? “I walk around,” he says with a shrug. “I’d rather have land than money.”