By Nick Krewen
Special to the Star
Sometimes fate intervenes in mysterious ways.
For example, take Blue Rodeo: the creation of the Toronto collective’s new album Many A Mile, released Friday, was as much a surprise to the band’s co-founding songwriters Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor as anyone.
Even though it’s been five years since their last studio effort, 1000 Arms, it seemed it would be another little while before another batch of new songs would be cooked up.
But apparently Keelor, 67, had other ideas, unbeknownst to Cuddy, 65.
“As far as I knew, there wasn’t an album planned,” Cuddy admits during an interview earlier this week. “Maybe that’s not entirely true, because a couple of years ago when we played Vancouver, Greg said to me, ‘let’s make another record.’ I was surprised, because I thought that the record before was kind of hard on him – hard on his ears, hard on his head and hard on his psyche.
“I said, ‘well, let me think about it.’ And I think Susan (de Cartier,) our manager, said, ‘Greg’s waiting on you.’ And I thought I was waiting on him. I guess I got it wrong.”
It was well documented that Keelor had been suffering from a variety of aural ailments including tinnitus, but the break from performing enforced by the pandemic had allowed him enough rest that he felt rejuvenated.
After finishing promotional duties for Share The Love, Keelor ended up writing “When You Were Wild” – eventually “Many A Mile’s” lead-off track – and set it out to record it with sometime Blue Rodeo guitarist Jimmy Bowskill in Bowskill’s Cobourg studio, along with his solo album compadres James McKenty and Ian McKeown.
“We built up the track and it sounded great,” Keelor recalls. “And I thought, maybe this could be a Blue Rodeo record.”
Keelor sent “When You Were Wild” and a number of other songs to Cuddy.
“It was a surprise to me to get Greg’s songs pretty much completed,” Cuddy remembers. ” And I was overjoyed – these sounded great! They’re great songs and there’s a lot of them. And I would know exactly what I would do with them, so we saved ourselves the painstaking birth of the songs. It seems to me that we had passively agreed not to mess with each other’s stuff – to do what was required – and it sounded like Blue Rodeo. Normally, that’s a lot more collaboration.”
Cuddy admitted the timing was a tad inconvenient because he was eight songs in for his own solo project – The Jim Cuddy Band has released five albums as fellow Blue Rodeo founder Bazil Donovan on bass and guitarist Colin Cripps fulfill double duties with both bands – but it didn’t take him long to switch gears.
“I do try to not overlap – so I had to start songwriting again,” Cuddy explains. “But I was on a good songwriting roll as well. The pandemic was good for me as much as I was able to get away, stay in one place, work on songs continuously without any other obligations. So, I could do an about-face, start writing for the Blue Rodeo record and that was a lot of fun.”
Here’s the intriguing part: Keelor and Cuddy were never in the same studio for the entire recording process.
“It was really quite inspiring how everyone accepted this different way to make a record,” Keelor notes. “Everybody was willing to let go of how everything was before and it was really great.”
After songs were figured out, Cuddy and Keelor booked the remaining musicians in Blue Rodeo – drummer Glenn Milchem, bassist Donovan, guitarists Cripps and Bowskill and keyboardist Mike Boguski – a day at a time, to individually either replace previously recorded parts or fill in new ones.
When they needed to sing on each other’s songs – Cuddy wrote five and Keelor penned seven for Many A Mile – they sent each other digital stems and recorded their harmonies in their respective studios.
“It happened the way it happened and it happened with the timing all because of the COVID,” says Keelor. “It was an interesting way to make a record.”
And “Many A Mile” is a great record, straddling the familiar Blue Rodeo blend of rock, country and pop as that the Toronto lads have perfected for the past 37 years on a dozen tunes that mingle Cuddy’s romanticism on tracks like “I Will Wait For You” and “I Think About You” with Keelor’s reflective and sometimes philosophical observations on “When You Were Wild,” “Deep Dark Well” and “Symmetry of Starlight.”
There’s also the “The Opening Act,” a lighthearted, bluegrass-tinged piece of Honky-tonk that Keelor said was inspired by constantly misidentifying a warm-up act due to a brain fart.
“The last tour we were on, Terra Lightfoot was the opening act,” Keelor recalls. “It was a very enjoyable tour. Every night I introduced the opening act and bring them out to sing ‘Lost Together’ with us in our set – and every night I’d go, ‘Thank you to Tara MacLean!’
“I don’t know why I was doing that. It was an onset of adult Tourette’s. I’d go up to the microphone whispering to myself, “Terra Lightfoot. Terra Lightfoot, Terra Lightfoot” and then I’d say, “Thank you to Tara MacLean.” I did it half the time and it got ridiculous. My brain will often desert me and it takes a powder. I can’t remember peoples’ names – it’s sort of embarrassing.”
After returning home from the tour, Keelor said he spent the evening and the next day writing the song “because I was in that wired sort of place.”
Looking back on the 12-time Juno Award-winning Canadian Music Hall Of Fame band’s humble Queen Street West beginnings, Blue Rodeo recently revisited its roots with a surprise set at the 40th Anniversary of The Cameron House.
“The Cameron is very meaningful in our careers and memories of being a band,” says Keelor. “It was a focal point for a lot of musicians and sculptors and artists and videomakers back in the mid-80s: a cross-pollinating sort of scene. “When we started hanging out on Queen Street West it was Coney Island dogs and a bookstore and the Peter Pan and the Horseshoe and that was about it. So, the Cameron is a remarkable spot in that it’s stayed committed to being a haven for the misplaced and the artistic.”
Jim Cuddy says it was remarkable to be playing at a venue where they often held court in the back room during their formative days.
“We played for Ann Marie Ferraro and Paul (Sannella) who owned the place – I mean, she used to take tickets at the door when we started – so it was a wash of very pleasant nostalgia. It was also extremely inspiring to know that it continues. Because after we played, there was a lineup of really great artists singing a song or two. It was a great, great night and I had a fantastic time, just sitting and listening to everybody play. The musicianship was superb.”
The one thing that comes through in the interview is how much the partners still admire each other and appreciate Blue Rodeo as a vehicle for their muse. After starting out with Bobby Wiseman on keyboards and Cleave Anderson on drums for the albums “Outskirts” and “Diamond Mine”, the trio of Cuddy, Keelor and Donovan have leaned into country with pedal steel guitarists Kim Deschamps and Bob Egan as parts of their lineup at different points and even gone psychedelic with their albums Five Days In July, Nowhere But Here and Tremolo.
“The funny thing – and Jim and I were talking about this the other day – is that we both love writing songs,” says Keelor. “Part of it is that we’ve been surrounded by great musicians our adult life. It’s inspiring as a songwriter to know that there’s an audience that will listen to it, and that there’s all these musicians we get together and put the song together. It’s a very satisfying endeavour.”
Adds Cuddy: “It’s great to have a partner like Greg, who was willing to just keep going. Everything that has ensued since then has seemed like a gift. It occurs to me frequently that I’m just grateful that we’re able to make music – that I’m able to make music with such good musicians.”
Speaking of good musicians, tickets for Blue Rodeo’s 22-date cross-Canada tour – including a pair of January 28 and 29 Massey Hall shows – went on sale Friday and Cuddy says 2022 will be a busy year full of “postponed makeup dates” that were bumped due to the pandemic.
Greg Keelor says he’s well aware that his ears are going to be subject to discomforting volumes as well.
“There’s a certain resilience to them, but they’re not bulletproof, ” he admits. “I have to be prepared and accept that yes, it will put me in some sort of compromised hearing situation. Once the ears start getting really compressed, it just sort of affects everything.
“So, I’m just going to go through that. And I’m going to look forward to doing the tour, even though my ears have a hard time with loud volumes. I love singing these songs and being in this band.”