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Justin Rutledge teams with Michael Ondaatje

Justin Rutledge, Queen Street West, Toronto.

Someone struggling with a dance step could call on Mikhail Baryshnikov for assistance. If one's hot sauce fails to kick, Emeril would be the best possible chef to assist. And if a songwriter is stuck on a line, a melodious person might wish to bring in Michael Ondaatje.

That is what Justin Rutledge did. On his latest album The Early Widows (to be released next month), the graceful Toronto troubadour called on the acclaimed writer Ondaatje to help finish off a couple of songs, including the newly released lead single Be a Man. "I had been working on the song for about a year, lyrically, and I was stumped on a couple of lines," explains Rutledge. "So, I brought it to him and said 'I need your help, here.'"

As Avril Lavigne knows so well, there are professional song doctors who collaborate with recording artists. Ondaatje, albeit a poet and novelist, is not one of those tune coaches.

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Rutledge and Ondaatje had already been collaborating on When My Name Was Anna, a Daniel Brooks-directed stage production adapted from Ondaatje's Divisadero, winner of the 2007 Governor-General's Literary Award for English Fiction. For the project - set to premiere in February, 2011 - Ondaatje incorporated a few of Rutledge's earlier songs. As well, during rehearsals late last year for a workshop presentation of the play, Rutledge, not an actor, was drafted into the production after it was determined another male role was needed.

Rutledge doesn't view When My Name Was Anna as a play, instead describing it as a "dramatic reading," based on the first third of Divisadero, a novel that includes one character whose "tough fingers would tug the heart out of his guitar."

The country crooner's work with Ondaatje on the stage project bled into the creation of his album. At Blue Rodeo's recording studio (the Woodshed, on the Danforth in Toronto), the pair casually worked on a few songs. Be a Man, a softly dramatic manta, is the only album cut with an Ondaatje co-credit attached.

It isn't Rutledge's natural inclination to collaborate on songs. But with Ondaatje, it worked. "Writing with Michael was the easiest, most productive songwriting session I've ever had."

The talented and moderately successful indie-label musician is not wealthy. If Be a Man becomes a hit, perhaps the better-off novelist should be a man, as it were, and turn over his half of the royalties. "No," Rutledge says firmly, "I'm going to be a man and give him his fair share."

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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