If you spend any amount of time in a room with a radio programmer or a record-label executive, you're likely to hear a story (or three) about their greatest almost-a-success artist. In light of this, one guesses that somewhere out there a former Warner/Atlantic executive would tell you how that story applies to Blue Rodeo. The Canadian band should have fit right into the alt-country story line of the '90s, the tale that included bands such as the Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, the Old '97s, Uncle Tupelo and (eventually) Wilco. Born in the early '80s as a country/rock hybrid, Blue Rodeo itself realized early on that the large amounts of success it had found in Canada wouldn't be matched in the United States. Strangely enough, the band believed that it had a lot to do with the inability of U.S. music fans to accept and accommodate the fact that the band had two lead vocalists.
Digging deeper into that theory, the two principal members of Blue Rodeo — singer/guitarist Jim Cuddy and singer/guitarist Greg Keelor — are like oil and water for some, which is to say that they are two very different vocalists. You can usually count on Cuddy for the more upbeat material or for a pretty love song that will charm the pants off of any girl you might be trying to woo. Keelor, in contrast, is the more psychedelic and unpredictable side of Blue Rodeo, and his material often leans to the sadder and (at times) creepier side of life.
The latest Blue Rodeo release, The Things We Left Behind, is a double album, recorded specifically with vinyl in mind, and envisioned during the recording process as four distinctly different sides of music. The band is set for a headlining performance on night two of this year's Twangfest. Unbelievably, this marks Blue Rodeo's first St. Louis performance since the early '90s, when the band played at Cicero's and Mississippi Nights. The RFT caught up with Jim Cuddy on the eve of the U.S. tour to find out where he's been hiding.
Matt Wardlaw: I know that a lot of folks are very stoked that you're finally coming back to St. Louis.
Jim Cuddy: [Laughs] It's been a long time! St. Louis is awkwardly placed in the middle of the United States. We do the northeast and then we do the West, and we just don't get through to the middle. I think Mississippi Nights might have been the last time that we played there.
Let's discuss this new album. There are some great enhancements to your normal sound, including strings on some of the songs. I know that Greg was listening to the third Big Star album [Third/Sister Lovers] during the period that the band was recording this new album. What kind of stuff were you listening to?
I was really trying to write very quiet, acoustic songs, so I think "In My Bones" was one of the first ones that I wrote. And I wanted nothing to do with [string] sections anymore — I wanted to use only one or two instruments, whether it was just a cello or just a violin. Greg would play me the Big Star stuff, and a lot of the stuff that he likes. I liked the melodic aspect of [the music Greg was playing for me], but I didn't like the fullness of it. I think Greg and I both agreed, we wanted to make each instrument count more than that. If it needed eight pieces to back it up, it wasn't what we wanted to do. We were going to deal with sixteen songs, some that were going to be long, so we had to have an overriding principle. And sparseness was going to be it.
Beyond that, it was like anything [Blue Rodeo typically records]. Greg has always had a thing for the flute. I don't think there's been any flute on past Blue Rodeo records, because I've always been a bit wary of the flute, but it was quite beautiful. He wanted bassoon on a track, so he went a little bit further in terms of orchestration. [But] I wanted to be much more sparse on my songs.
The flute that you're mentioning is on "You Said," and I have to tell you, when I first heard the flute, I thought that perhaps one of the members of the Moody Blues had stopped by the studio. And that's no knock, because I'm a big fan of the Moodies, but it caught me off guard, hearing it on a Blue Rodeo album.
[Laughs] The good thing about the Moody Blues is that they normally would have used a Mellotron, and I love that pulsing sound.Greg was a really big Yusef Lateef fan and really likes [jazz flute player] Paul Horn — I like those, but I just keep thinking Jethro Tull and all of that stuff, and it drives me out of my mind! But he used it very well, and he was very cautious about it. And then we had [Canadian artist] Julie Fader come up with us; she sang and played the flute parts, and it was very nice. I like the way she played. The way you play that instrument matters — too much vibrato, and oof, it's awful. Just enough [vibrato], and it's sweet.
Whether it's that — or the Stax Records approach you took in 2002 with the Palace of Gold album, where suddenly Blue Rodeo has a horn section — this keeps me interested in Blue Rodeo. There aren't many bands where I can buy the albums for twenty years — and not buy at least one that makes me ask myself, What are these guys doing? I don't have that problem with Blue Rodeo albums.
[Laughs] That's pretty good, because yeah, we get these ideas, and you just hope that you can see it through to completion. This one was much more about the double record. I think we were quite clear on how we wanted to do this one, instrumentation- and production-wise. From there, it was about how to make four sides, because we all thought about it as vinyl almost right off the bat.
Looking back at your career to date, what songs stick out to you as the ones that were the most demanding to write?
That's a good question. "5 Days in May" [from 1993's Five Days in July] for me was demanding. I didn't get it quite right, and I wasn't quite sure what I was writing about to begin with. I had to change the tempo, and once I changed the tempo, I knew exactly what it was about. That was a watershed for me, for all of the rest of the songs on that record. Once I had that, I knew how to write the other songs. Also, any of the songs that I wrote on [1995's] Nowhere to Here, because that was the biggest struggle time for me and this band. Those songs — that's a difficult record for me to listen to, because it was a very fractious time in the band. I actually do like those songs — there's something interesting about what comes up when you're stressed, and you don't really know what you should be writing about.