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."
The farmhouse is where Blue Rodeo recorded Five Days in July, released in 1993. The video for Hasn't Hit Me Yet was filmed here. Today, there's a long picnic table and a swimming pool, full of leaves now on a drizzly fall afternoon. The driveway is littered with cars, including Keelor's cream-colored, vintage Ford Ranchero. Some of the band (which also includes pedal-steel player Bob Egan, keyboardist Michael Boguski and the third original member, bassist Bazil Donovan) are staying at the house during the recording sessions, while others dive back nightly to Toronto. "It's a nice little nesting for us," is how Keelor puts it. "We sit down, we eat together – we can't run away."
Keelor has been suffering from hearing issues for the last few years, to the point now that the band has hired another guitarist, the veteran producer and sideman Colin Cripps. Keelor can't wear headphones while recording any longer. "It's different," is all he says when asked about listening to speakers rather than through cans.
Coming back inside, I bump into Cuddy, now at the piano downstairs. He sees Blue Rodeo as "part of the landscape," and that it is better to be taken for granted than to be forgotten. As for the band's status, he likens it to a small, family-run operation. "We're like a really successful dry cleaner, where we own the building."
Keelor remembers what it was like being an "it" band. "There was something very pleasant about that," he says. But there's something noble about outlasting the buzz and still being able to play 25 concerts across the country, selling out most of them. "Would I trade that reliability for it-ness," he wonders aloud. "I don't think so."
Solo, and so long
The boxed set Blue Rodeo: 1987-1993 includes a remix of the group's first album, Outskirts, with a reinstated piano solo on the song Piranha Pool. For original keyboardist Bobby Wiseman, though, the gesture comes 25 years too late.
"When we were making the album, they were having a nervous breakdown over which one of my solos on Piranha Pool they were going to use. At the end of the day, they acquiesced to checking with me, which was the thing they should have done, because we were a band – which, ostensibly, was about respecting each other. A few weeks later, though, I was told by the band's management that the solo I liked had been lost. But, wow, by coincidence, the producer, Terry Brown, was able to use the one he liked the most. I have no idea if the one being used now on the remixed version is the one I preferred back then. It's small consolation for not treating a guy with respect back in the day. That kind of thing didn't work for me, and I eventually quit the band. I loved those guys when I started, but my heart was broken by a lot of things that I saw as time went on."
Against the grain
"Started out so innocent / Everything was so simple and so plain." Blue Rodeo's fifth album was recorded with little forethought, and with two new members, the band was in transition. Bassist Bazil Donovan talks about the casual process of making 1993's Five Days in July.
"Americana wasn't a term yet. I remember playing with Lucinda Williams in Memphis, and there being 15 people in the room. There was a certain reality that had hit us – that things were going to be different for us in the States, and that we weren't a new band any more. Nirvana was big at the time, which changed everything. On the way home from an Australian tour, Greg [Keelor] suggested we go out to his farm, to chill out and do some recording. The plan was loose – maybe we'd get an EP out of it. We initially went out to the farm for five days in June. We recorded a lot of loud stuff which we couldn't use. We decided to go back for another five days in July, to focus on the quieter stuff. As I said, grunge had broke. Everybody was turning up to 11, and we were turning down to two. It was people at the farm having fun, and, in the meantime, we were going to play some music. I really didn't notice that we were making a record."
Blue Rodeo's silver anniversary tour begins in Whitehorse, Jan. 3, and finishes in Hamilton, Feb. 16.