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  • Writer's pictureBy Quinn Bender

Jim Cuddy on the long road from nowhere to here

FINE LIFESTYLES MAGAZINE | Canadian music icon opens up about a life on the road, and long journey with his Blue Rodeo bandmates to next month's induction into the the Music Hall of Fame

Jim Cuddy's latest solo project marks the first time he's cracked the Top 10 without Blue Rodeo. Photo supplied


Rounding off a two-stop solo performance in Saskatchewan, the 56-year old Canadian icon is now migrating east with his Skyscraper Soul cross-country road tour. This third offering from the Jim Cuddy Band is a dramatic, personal departure from the fiddle-and-roots sound for which he’s known--a risky move, but one that’s paying off. Skyscraper marks the first time Cuddy has cracked the Canadian Top-10 album charts without the backing of his mainstay, Blue Rodeo.

In April, the tour will wind down in Cuddy’s hometown of Toronto, where he and Blue Rodeo co-lead, Greg Keelor, will map out the band’s 13th studio al­bum.

If the previous 12 provide any hints, it too will chart somewhere in the Top 10. Its popularity will surely only rise, as re-re­leases and special edition albums emerge to mark

the band’s 25th anniversary.

A quarter century is a big achievement for the jazz-rocking roots quintet. They hit

the music scene when glam-rock was on its last can of hair spray, and grunge rock was digging a malcontent foothold in its place. Yet year after year, Blue Rodeo's following only grew, among mul­tiple

generations and a wide cross-section of genres: country, rock, alternative, folk, jazz....

Rustic and honest, Blue Rodeo’s music gives voice to the Canadian landscape, a kind of musical manifestation of its people and their experiences. And now, for all of their achievements, next month the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will induct Blue Rodeo into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

There is much to celebrate, and talk about, with Jim Cuddy. It’s been a long road from nowhere to here.

Canada’s Own

Canada loves Blue Rodeo. Let’s agree on that off the top. If you don't care for their sound, you might just respect the volume of their talent, and their very un-Canadian tenacity to embrace success with an almost-exclusive Canadian audience.

The quarter-century-band indeed owes their success to fans at home, but it’s stymied music journalists as to why their music hasn’t crossed the border and spread internationally. Canadians, with a vaulted sense of modesty, have a disconcerting habit of seeking outside ap­proval before celebrating thier artists at home. Blue Rodeo is a rare exception: because Americans rejected them, Canadians embraced them; without the need to gentrify their lyrics, the band was free to celebrate their specific Canadian surroundings. And Canadians loved them even more.

In spite of a noteworthy review in Rolling Stone stating early in the band's career that “the best new American band might very well be Canadian,” such acclaim never translated into commercial success south of the 49—notwithstand­ing a few pockets of followers. They have remained Canada’s own.

“I think it’s been very informing of why [Americans] haven’t embraced us,” Cuddy says.” When [Blue Rodeo] started, we thought the United States was just a bigger Canada. When we did strike in Canada, and when we did have that review in Rolling Stone… we thought it would go over the same way there that it went over here.”

Blue Rodeo has been defined as blend be­tween alternative-country and rock, along the lines of the alt-rockers BoDeans, with an Eagles influence. Add to that Cuddy’s searing, confident tenor, it’s just the kind of sound that should catch in the Ameri­can heartland. Yet their US concerts are still limited to music festivals and bou­tique venues as a visiting or supporting act.

Contrast that with their run in Can­ada: 12 Top-10 studio albums, with their first seven going multi-platinum (six times for Five Days in July); nine Top-10 singles on stations throughout the radio dial; 11 Juno Awards; and invitations to the nation’s largest cultural events—the Vancouver Olympics, the returning Winnipeg Jets’ first game (yes, a cultural event) and the 2008 Canada Day celebrations on Parlia­ment Hill, to name a few. In short, the genre-crossing rockers have quite possibly become the most widely celebrated act in Canadian music history, one small town at a time.

“Blue Rodeo is a perfect example of the kinds of things that are embraced in Canada," Cuddy says. "Greg and I are two very different singers; we’re a blend of musical styles; we travel all over the place, going to every little town. We do everything that seems different from American rock bands. And yet that’s what Canadians have really al­ways embraced.

“The United States always just seemed like more work to us," Cuddy says, dismissing the topic. "It was never the dream. I think we filled the dream when we filled the Horseshoe Tavern in Toron­to—wow, looking at that line up.…”

The Jim Cuddy Band. Photo supplied

On the Road

One mention of hockey is all it takes for Jim Cuddy to derail an interview. Leaning forward, his arms now uncrossed, his face is lit up. He’s not talking about NHL standings or even his beloved Maple Leafs (“I love the Leafs. I love them. I love them. I love them!”). He’s talking about the game itself. Stashed in the touring bus is a kit of gear and a pair of skates. Over the years Cuddy has established a coun­try-wide network of teams and leagues he can call upon for quick game of pick up. Before his upcoming show in Winnipeg, he’s arranged for some scrimmage with former, professional athletes.

“Their all over 70,” he says, laughing. “It’s gonna be fantastic!” He plays with some teams more often than their official mem­bers. “Hockey is a big part of my life on the road.”

In more ways than hockey, Cuddy has re­defined the rock-'n-roll road tour. Having banished all non-organic foods from the bus, tension and conflict among band members has faded. The road is a refuge of rest, respite and reflection. When an ice rink is not to be found, Cuddy, a serious wine aficionado, could be swirling and gurgling a glass of Bordeaux between gigs at Porcupine Plain and Little Bone, Saskatchewan.

After 25 years both in front of cheering fans and down long sleepless highways, it’s possible that Cuddy (along with Blue Rodeo) has headlined nearly every club, theatre and arena in the country. In the past five years he has performed more than 300 shows from coast to coast and back again. Retracing his path, year after year, has not dulled, but sharpened the experience.

“I never find it monotonous,” he says.

“We have this advantage of being in each place for a very short period of time while we play music and have this communion with people. That communion is everything. It’s what you spend all of your day preparing for. You have to figure out where the crowd is at, why they’re there, and what it is you can do to bring them closer to the stage. You have to make sure you’re in good shape to cre­ate some special feeling in the room. You can’t rely on muscle memory for each town you stop in.”

A musician that sustains a career on the road learns about the nature of people, but also of relationships and the weight and stress those connections can bear. Under these pressures, Cuddy’s 30-year marriage to actress Rena Polley is a stunning achievement in the entertain­ment world, but its maintenance is ongoing.

“We haven’t pulled it off yet. It’s not over. I think both of us would say that we have been through incredible ups and downs. It’s very difficult when you have three kids and a touring husband. There’s lots of times when you think this is not the life for you. Yet somehow we make it work—we love each other and we want to make it work.”

When the two met, they promised to re­sist convention. They certainly achieved that, and this year it was Polley’s influ­ence that saw her husband to the road an­other time around with Skyscraper Soul.

In the Beginning

Jim Cuddy met Rena Polley at Queens University in 1978. As he describes it, she jogged past him with curly hair and a big smile. He asked around for her name then soon called her for what became an hours-long breakfast date. They’ve been together ever since.

On Skyscraper Soul Cuddy reflects on their early days in the song Regular Days:

You just sleep, don’t worry we’ll get there soonI’ll turn off the dashboard lights and follow the moonGot some money and a case of wineI brought you clothes and I hope they’re fineNighttime’s a mystery we need to explore Lying in a bed of a suite we can barely af­ford….

“It’s about our early days, when we real­ized we were going to stick with our artis­tic careers. Who knew what would really happen? But whatever happened it was not going to be like everybody else. It was never going to be nine to five, not in any sense of that idiom.”

The couple’s lives moved in tandem for many years through languorous day jobs. Cud­dy eventually entered a minor career per­forming props for television commercials, which gave him the financial confidence to defer law school three times.

“There’s just so many things that will take music away from you. One of the major things is just having to make a living doing something else. But what’s worse is using music to make a living.”

Fearful of living the life of an unhappy lawyer, and skeptical in 1985 of his new­ly-formed band’s instant success, Cuddy stayed with commercials until the tour­ing demands of Blue Rodeo’s third album forced him to hand in his union card.

Cuddy then spent half his life touring the country, reflecting on its rural themes, but each time returning to an urban existence. Skyscraper Soul is a long-overdue tribute to these roots—the city: Toronto. It’s an exploration of theme and sound he couldn’t bring to a band praised for their backcountry reverie. Instead, it was his long-time muse—wife Rena Pol­ley—who inspired the departure.

Full Circle

A few years ago Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor were asked to write a soundtrack for the Paul Gross film, Gunless. As Keelor laid down ideas like wildcards, Cuddy struggled. He soon bowed out of the project, thinking that he and film were a bad fit. That changed when he watched his wife’s short film, Four Sis­ters, a comedic story of four middle-aged sisters grappling with their mother’s pass­ing.

“I said to Rena, ‘You need a punctuation mark at the end of this.’ I had this little bluesy song rolling around in my head about a mother who can’t take care of her kids anymore, and that was it.”

Cuddy pulled a few musicians (including his son on piano) into Blue Rodeo’s Toronto recording studio, The Woodshed, and pushed out the song in two takes, live from the floor. The result was Water’s Running High, a lusty and turbulent piece built around an emphatic falsetto befitting of Bourbon Street. Pass­ing on the slide guitar and fiddle, the intro­duction of a trumpet changed everything. More blue notes. More sevens.

It was the perfect exclamation point to Four Sisters.

“That song was a big deal. It gave me a chance to do something different. It’s got this rough and tumble feel to it. Because it was bluesy, because it was something I hadn’t done before, because I allowed myself to put down whatever instrumen­tation I wanted, it definitely carved out the sound for the record.”

Cuddy describes the record as “an apol­ogy and in praise of the city.” Buoyed by Water’s Running High, he wrote the album's title track, Skyscraper Soul, a melancholy journey through the beaten-down streets of a city Canadians love to hate, Toronto.

“I had to stand up for the city I love!” Cuddy says. “I’ve been writing about rural landscapes and natural landscapes for my whole career, yet I live in a city,” he said. “Every so often I’ll turn my attention to it, but this time the trumpet created a sound that was more associated with the urban-ness of our landscape. As a discussion point, it might be a little more challenging for some people.”

That's doubtful. By population trends alone, Blue Rodeo, and Jim Cuddy by ex­tension, may have more fans in Canada’s cities than its towns and pastoral settings. Cuddy’s repertoire of regret, heartbreak and missed opportunities are real-world experiences, as easily reflected off the glass facades of skyscrapers, as surrendered to the wind from a dusty country road.

“I just wanted to give myself a chance to do it... That’s the whole point of doing a solo record, to try new things with my voice that I would feel a little awkward asking Blue Rodeo to do.”

Blue Rodeo knows its audience too well to mix solo pursuits with their collective voice. It's too distinct, too established. Fans and journalists may perplex over why Blue Rodeo isn’t better known internationally, but after 25 years and more than four million album sales (count: one for every 10 Canadians), it’s of little importance anymore. On April 1 in Ottawa, Blue Rodeo will take the stage at the 41st Annual Juno Awards Cer­emony to accept their induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, alongside global legends like Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Oscar Peterson.

“That’s huge,” Cuddy says. “Blue Rodeo is not very warm to praise. They don’t cel­ebrate anniversaries or awards--I do, but they don't. They like it, but it’s not a big deal. This is a big deal. When you take time to contemplate it, we’re going to be enshrined in a hall that holds a lot of our musical idols.

“It is truly a big deal for us.”

After the ceremony, and what Cuddy as­sures will be a befitting party, the band will rendezvous in downtown Toronto, in their self-styled Woodshed, to make an­other allegorical trip back to rural Canada.

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