Flying solo: The Jim Cuddy Band is a sideline no more

Jim Cuddy leads his band into Southam Hall this week.

It’s hard to imagine Jim Cuddy ever being out of sorts and uncertain. His easy going confident demeanour has helped define the iconic band Blue Rodeo.

But some two decades ago, he was nervous. His partner in music Greg Keelor had decided to take some time away from the band and make a record of his own.

“Originally I viewed the band as sort of a fail safe,” Cuddy said in an interview. “At the time Greg (Keelor) was sort of disenchanted with Blue Rodeo and he went off to make a solo record that was very different.

“And I thought I had better figure out if I could do a solo record. I had always worked with Greg. I had never worked alone.”

So Cuddy sucked it up and made a solo record of his own.

“It was very enjoyable and the reaction was great. I got a band together and that band has now been together for 21 years.” Just to underline the point the Jim Cuddy Band will be at the National Arts Centre on Jan. 31, the last day of a national tour.

The band was started as a sideline but now “in terms of the number of gigs that I do, it’s probably more than a sideline. Blue Rodeo has tapered off to a certain number of gigs a year which is great and it works really well. Then everybody does with their time what they want.

“It’s become equally important but at a lower level,” Cuddy said.

The band allows Cuddy to take his music into smaller and more relaxed venues such as Fredericton, NB’s Playhouse Theatre, He was in the New Brunswick city when this chat happened. “It’s not a place Blue Rodeo could play. It’s too small, but it’s good for me; it’s perfect for me. There are a lot of opportunities for me out there.” Out west he was playing in the big cities but also in the interior of British Columbia.

“It’s fun for me. I like playing and it keeps my voice and playing skills in shape.”

When Keelor and Cuddy started playing together there weren’t side projects.

“Our musical journey was entirely together.”

The formal collaboration started on a drive to Toronto from Queen’s University in Kingston where Cuddy was studying English lit.

“Greg picked me up at university to drive me home to Toronto and he started asking if I would like to form a band with him and I said sure. By the time we got to Toronto we had a band and we have have it ever since.

His time at Queen’s was important for more than poetry and novels.

“I would listen to Stan Rogers, David Bradstreet, Dan Hill, Bruce Cockburn and Willie P. Bennett. He had just gone off the radar a bit, but he was always someone I admired. Valdy would come through town too. Those were really important years for me.”

Devin Cuddy. Photo: Jen Squires

When Keelor and Cuddy started, “I think Greg was way more certain, he was way more ballsy than I was. He was writing songs right off the hop even though he could barely play guitar.

“I was cautious and I didn’t want to reveal too much about myself. We wrote together stylistically in the early days, especially with (the original combination) called Hi-Fi’s.”

They were exploring “what kind of speed pop we could do or what kind of rockabilly things were possible,” he said.

“We diverged and started writing on our own when we felt confident about being artists and writing on our own.

“When I was writing for Blue Rodeo half of my brain was always Greg and the band too. Therein lies a big difference. When I’m writing for myself I don’t think about it, I just think about writing a song and finishing a story. It will always be like that. I can’t just write for myself with Blue Rodeo.

“We became sort of a satellites on the same orbit.” That the relationship has lasted is a testament.

“Greg and I have had many ups and downs but I think we both feel fortunate that we have come to a point where we can really satisfy the muse and keep all our different enterprises going.

“Greg does lots of different things and plays in different bands. He also has problems with his ears and he can’t go out and do 100 gigs a year, but he can do 40 and do them well. The guy is 100 per cent music.

“I don’t think I am because first of all I’m big into the distraction of sports and I have a family. I am lucky two of my three kids have pursued music. By being part of kids lives I am also part of their music. I think it all gets a little much for my wife but she’s an actress so I’m into that a little bit too.”

Devin Cuddy surprised the old man.

“We had no idea he would do this. First he said he wanted to go to music school and we went OK. He was sort of into jazz there. Then all of a sudden he had a bunch of roots songs and where did that come from?

“He started in the most difficult way by himself on the piano. Most people hide themselves in a band until they are good enough. But he always had a plan and he knew when he wanted to get a band. Watching his evolution was great and now he’s a very seasoned and confident performer.” Devin’s band will be on the bill in Ottawa.

Sam Polley. Photo: Dave Silani

Now he’s watching son Sam. “He was just out west and he did five or six gigs with his guitar player. Watching his confidence level grow from gig one to six was something.”

It’s a bit of an out of body experience watching Sam because he does look like Jim.

“He has his mother’s last name (Polley). It’s freaky, but nice freaky.”

As you might expect from a touring musician, the Jim Cuddy band has a new record called Countrywide Soul.

For Cuddy, the country side of his music is “totally acquired. By the time I got to Blue Rodeo the country music I knew pretty much was what I knew when I was a kid. Then I pretty much was British invasion in the 1960s until I got into singer songwriter stuff. That’s what takes you back.

“I saw Jerry Jeff Walker when I was in my early 20s and that was a mashup up of everything I like, rock and country. I also loved Jackson Browne and the west coast sound.”

In Blue Rodeo, Cuddy says Basil Donovan is the teacher.

“He knows everything about country music. He’s been there and played it for years. That’s been my education.That appreciation deepens every year.”

Last few years Cuddy has done a country classics charity event for a food bank at Christmas. That’s been influential.

“Standing beside Doug Paisley and he’s singing George Jones’ He Stopped Loving Her Today. I love that song already. It’s a perfect song.”

On the album he’s covered two classic country songs — Almost Persuaded and Glen Campbell’s mega hit Rhinestone Cowboy.

The latter tune was everywhere when it was released in 1975.

“I never paid much heed to it back then. I liked it, but it never mattered to me because I was into other music, Cuddy said.

Then “I was playing a gig with George Canyon and he did a version. Cuddy says he realized “that’s a great song. There is a lot in the song. It’s three minutes long, it’s got good story. It’s very challenging to sing and it’s got a beautiful chord structure. It’s a flawless song.

“It’s funny to play it live because everyone knows the song and a lot of people don’t know why they know. They are singing along and you talk to them afterwards and they ask what was that song?” When he tells them Rhinestone Cowboy they say, “my mother used to listen to that.”

In Cuddy’s career, Blue Rodeo has a specific paradigm but his own band is more free range. He can record when he wants. Countrywide Soul was done in three days of recording time in the barn on his farm.

He said the speed of the session is a tribute to musicians in his band — Bazil Donovan, Colin Cripps, Joel Anderson, Steve O’Connor, Anne Lindsay and Gavin Brown.

“Just watching them navigate the landscape, they are fantastic musicians. That is something that I always want to celebrate — how many fantastic musicians there are in this country.”

A week after his band ends this tour, Blue Rodeo will be on stage in St. Catharines, Ontario beginning a short tour.

The hard part isn’t the work, “it’s the transformation. Blue Rodeo played two gigs over the Christmas holidays in the middle of my tour. I so blanked during the first gig. It was embarrassing. I sat down the next day and played through Blue Rodeo songs that I have done a million times and got reacquainted.”

The Jim Cuddy Band with the Devin Cuddy Band
Where: Southam Hall
When: Jan. 31 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.