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Borderline Americana 

How MeadowGrass headliners Blue Rodeo became Canada's most beloved band

Over the course of the last several decades, a very small percentage of bands have managed to contain the talents and egos of more than one lead singer-songwriter. The most celebrated have included Arcade Fire, OutKast, The Clash, Fugazi, Steely Dan, and, of course, The Beatles.

To that distinguished list we can also add upcoming MeadowGrass headliners Blue Rodeo. In fact, frontmen Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy were hailed as "The Lennon and McCartney of Canadian Roots-Rock" by No Depression, the authority on all things Americana. Rolling Stone magazine, meanwhile, upped the ante, feverishly declaring that if more bands "played with the honesty and passion of Blue Rodeo, this would be a different world indeed."

The winner of a dozen Juno Awards — the Canadian equivalent of Grammys — Blue Rodeo have managed to sell some 4 million records worldwide, while remaining virtually unknown here in the States. No one's really sure why that is, but geography may have a lot to do with it.

It's the same problem faced by Corb Lund and Daniel Romano, Canadian artists who sound more American than most Americans, yet can hardly get arrested once they cross the border. (Actually, Blue Rodeo did manage to get arrested while crossing the Canadian border, but that's a story we'll leave for later in the interview.)

Which is not to say that Keelor and Cuddy didn't try. Friends since high school, they set out for New York City during the mid-'80s, some two decades after the Canadian Invasion brought Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young to the land of musical opportunity. Once there, they began playing punk bars as the Hi-Fis, which Keelor describes as "pretty much an amphetamine pop band."

Asked if his "amphetamine" reference is meant literally or figuratively, he assures me it's more the latter. "But of course," he adds, "everybody has their infatuation with little black pills from time to time."

Homesick after spending nearly three years in the city, Cuddy and Keelor retreated to Toronto. It's conceivable that sticking it out in New York could have brought their band the kind of stateside success enjoyed by their friend and collaborator Sarah McLachlan. But Keelor figures it could just as easily have gone in the opposite direction.

"If I'd stayed in New York, maybe I'd just be an alcoholic waiter talking about how [adopts trembly voice] 'When I was in a band, we played CBGB's.' So you never know what turn fate might have taken with other circumstances."

On the plus side, it was in New York that the duo first hooked up with keyboardist Bob Wiseman. After returning to Toronto, the three musicians began gigging as Blue Rodeo, landed a deal with Warner Brothers, and recorded their debut album, Outskirts, with Rush producer Terry Brown.

It was the kind of artist-and-producer pairing that only makes sense in the realm of the record business. Yet with its lilting harmonies and haunting lyrics, the album still served to establish an immediately identifable sound, one that's seen the band through a dozen subsequent albums, all of which have made the Canadian Top 10.

Indeed, if the Eagles or America — or some other timeless American band — wrote great pop tunes and performed them with an edge, avoiding pablum along the way, they might sound like Blue Rodeo.

Among the group's best, and best-known, albums are 1992's self-produced Lost Together and its six-times-platinum successor Five Days in July. The latter includes the somewhat incongruously titled signature song "5 Days in May," which finds Cuddy singing — over a late-night, lost-highway soundscape — one of the most moving songs you're likely to hear:

"Later on they took his car / Drove on down where the beaches are / He wrote her name in the sand / Never even let go of her hand."

The secret of Blue Rodeo's success is the common ground that's found by two distinctly different songwriters. As their solo albums have shown, Cuddy can be a little bit country — a lot, actually — while Keelor's approach is a little bit, well, weird. His first solo album — with its sedated cover of the Talking Heads' "Heaven" and stunning originals like "White Marble Ganesh" — has a chillingly atmospheric quality that brings to mind a less lethargic Cowboy Junkies or The Byrds in their more contemplative moments.

In 2013, the two frontmen — along with current bandmates Bazil Donovan, Glenn Milchem, Bob Egan, Mike Boguski and Colin Cripps — convened at Keelor's farmhouse studio in Peterborough, a lakeside city 80 miles outside of Toronto, to record In Our Nature. It's a double-disc set that, as Keelor notes, was released not too long after Radiohead's Thom Yorke declared the album format dead.

Apparently that news never made it to Canada, where the album charted at No. 2, right behind Arcade Fire's Reflektor.

In anticipation of Saturday's MeadowGrass performance, we caught up with Keelor two weeks ago to get the rest of the Blue Rodeo story.

Indy: I was surprised to learn that your first album was produced by Terry Brown, who, by the time he worked with you, had produced something like nine Rush albums and three Klaatu albums. How weird did that seem at the time? You must have thought, on some level, "This is a terrible match." Or, at least, "a very interesting match."

Greg Keelor: Well, maybe a bit of both, eh? He was partners with our manager, so they had this company called Risky Disque, and Terry just sort of came with the package. And it was our first record, so we were pretty happy and eager just to be making a record.

This was back in the days when record companies still controlled the flow of music, and you needed a record company's budget behind you to actually make recordings. So we were just thrilled to be signed to Warner Brothers, and Terry was just kind of the class teacher. He sort of had to grade all our charts and make sure everything fit together properly. We were pretty naïve.

Did he try to get your voice to sound really high, like Geddy Lee's?

Yeah, he gave me a balloon to suck on. [Laughs.]

So what were the good things that came out of that, beyond having an album that did well on Warner Brothers?

As you say, it was our first poker chip in the ante of the game, and it did well for us. We did the first record in the studio, and for the next record we just rented a mobile truck and went to an old theater. And then we ended up mixing that down in New Orleans at Daniel Lanois' studio there. So yeah, I think that after Terry, we wanted to change things up a bit and be a little more in control.

Blue Rodeo has a very distinctive sound, even though you guys play in the same genre as a lot of other artists. What would you say are the qualities that can make people go, "Oh, that's a Blue Rodeo song," without knowing in advance that it is?

Well, a lot of the time we sing together, and I think the voices are very distinctive, especially when we're singing a harmony or unison thing. We're big fans of The Everly Brothers, The Beatles, that sort of construction of songwriting and vocal harmonies. And so I think that would probably be, you know, the biggest hint that it's a Blue Rodeo song.

In terms of your side projects, I saw Jim's band down in Austin, and I've heard your solo albums. And the impression I get is that he's more straight-ahead country, and that you are — for lack of a better word — more arty and atmospheric. Is that a fair characterization?

Well, I can be arty and atmospheric, but I also just like pop songs and I like country songs. You know, I didn't start playing guitar until I was 21, and I wasn't in a band until I was 25, when Jim and I had The Hi-Fis. So I didn't really start thinking about country music until we moved to New York. But I like writing songs in just about any style. Anything that comes, I'll take it.

I understand that you're a fan of psychedelia. I haven't checked the writing credits, but are songs like "Girl in Green" more the kind of thing that you bring to the band?

We credit everything to Keelor-Cuddy, so that it's like a partnership for all of our stuff. But, yes, I tend to write more that kind of thing. If there's something that's sort of trippy, it's probably mine.

And how would you describe Jim's songs?

Jim is sort of a classic singer-songwriter with a kind of R&B and country vibe. And Jim has this amazing voice, you know, that everyone sort of likes. My voice is a bit more of an acquired taste.

Some of your signature songs, like "Lost Together" and "Five Days in May," come from the period when you began producing albums on your own. Once you've had that kind of freedom, is it possible to go back to heavier outside influences?

Well, we never did. You know, we enjoyed the autonomy of just sort of stumbling along at our own schedules. And I don't think we can really complain about our careers, you know? Sure, maybe a producer could have made better records for us. [Laughs.] But we wouldn't have enjoyed the process so much. And we did OK.

In Our Nature was recorded in a farmhouse you have. Has that been the case with previous albums as well?

We did Five Days here ...

So you've had that place for a while.

I've been living here for 25 years, yeah. So we did Five Days here, and Nowhere to Here, In Our Nature, and half of The Things We Left Behind. And then lots of other people have made records here.

Who are some of them?

The Sadies have made records here. A band called Cuff the Duke. Who else has made records here? Lots of people you wouldn't know.

And who are some of the outside musicians who've made contributions to Blue Rodeo records?

Well, over the years, you know, maybe one of the biggest contributions was when we were doing Five Days. Sarah McLachlan was hanging out here for about a month. And so she did a lot of singing and piano playing, and, you know, she's fantastic on that record, and also on Here to Nowhere.

And other people we've had on our records — there's a woman named Julie Fader who's got a new album out with a band called Etiquette, which is great. Sarah Harmer, Oh Susanna, Margaret Good, Colin Linden, lots of people have put little pieces in our songs.

You say Sarah McLachlan was hanging out there for a month, which is a long time to hang out. What drew her there? Not those little black pills, I hope.

She had just done an album, I think it was Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, up in the Laurentian Mountains with her producer Pierre Marchand. I guess it had been a long winter and she'd worked really hard. And Five Days was a big party here. There were people camping and people just hanging out. So she just sort of came for the party and she ended up staying. Maybe it wasn't a whole month. She was here for about two weeks, and then went away, and then came back for another couple of weeks.

Do you miss that kind of atmosphere from when you were a younger musician finally getting to produce your own album on your own turf?

Well, you know, I make so many records here with other people that that feeling is still here. It never really goes away. I mean, I've made seven or eight records in the last year and a half with other people here. And so yeah, I love that. I love the feeling of creating, and I love the intensity of a group of people all focused on one thing.

When you put out In Our Nature a couple years ago, you cited Thom Yorke's comments about the end of the full-length album as one of the band's reasons for doing a double album. Were you joking about that, or was there some degree of wanting to prove him wrong?

Well, he was just sort of making a prediction of what has come to be, and so he was sort of right. I think that, just recently, downloads passed sales, right? So usually, there's no going back on these things. And the only thing he was sort of partially wrong about is that vinyl has made a big comeback, at least as a boutique sort of thing.

So he was just trying to predict the arc of things to come, and we just thought it was sort of fun to go, "OK then, we'll put out a double album."

Did the vinyl version have a gatefold sleeve so people could separate out seeds and stems?

Yes, indeed.

Which brings up another topic. Who are the two members of the band who were reportedly detained by drug-sniffing airport police dogs?

That was on Baffin Island, and it was the bass player and one of our roadies.

Were you there to see it? Exactly what happened?

Well, I'll tell you a good story about that one. Do you know where Baffin Island is?

I don't.

It's north of Hudson Bay, up in the Arctic. It's a very desolate and remote place, and we were going up there to do a show. So we land and go into the airport, which is no bigger than a shed, and in the shed are the mayor, a couple of other people, and the local TV station, which is just a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Company] camera, and they're there to meet us. The dignitaries of the town are all gonna welcome us to the island.

So this huge German shepherd comes in, and I remember going, "Oh, what a beautiful dog." And then he goes over to our bass player and starts, you know, barking and making all the moves that a drug dog's supposed to make. Then all these RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] come out and take Bazil and Hank, our roadie, away.

And Hank the roadie did a brilliant thing. They put Bazil in one office and they starting asking him questions. Then they called Hank in, and he had a chunk of hash on him, and he'd put it in his glove. And when he walked into the office, he threw his gloves down in front of the RCMP constable and said, "This is an insult!" — blah blah blah — and then sat down. They never looked in the glove, so he got off, and he still had his chunk of hash.

I want to ask about your most recent Blue Rodeo project being a Christmas album. Is that something that's been brewing for a while? Are you guys big fans of the season?

I do like the season, but no, I'd never really thought of making a Christmas record. But Jim wanted to, and I thought it'd be fun. You know, I do like Christmas parties, and I like the solstice, and the whole idea of where the Earth is in the solar system, and how that affects things. I like the coming of the snow and winter and all that, as well. So yeah, it's a time of year I do enjoy, and there are a few Christmas songs that I really like, so it was nice to record them.

This past holiday season, I was wandering through a thrift store when I realized that a lot Christmas songs are really depressing.

They are.

Like "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams." I mean, Jesus Christ. And I notice that you guys didn't exactly have a "Here Comes Santa Claus" vibe to your album. Were you intending, in a way, to push the less cheerful side of the holiday?

Well, I've always enjoyed a little bit of melancholy over Christmas. And, you know, I don't mind a little bit of melancholy mixed in with most of the year. But yeah, I would say that when I think of the songs that I put on, there's nothing too — well, you know, there are a couple of sort of celebratory ones. But a lot of people celebrate Christmas, and a lot of people are really bummed out over Christmas. So I like the music that sort of deals with the bummed out.

One last question. When it comes to recognition in the States, why do you think it is that Sarah McLachlan and other Canadian artists are embraced down here, but not artists like Blue Rodeo and Corb Lund, whose sound seems more traditionally American?

I have no idea. You know, there are a lot of bands like The Tragically Hip who never made it down there. So who can understand the fickle fancies of popular culture?

It always just seems like so many talented people don't make it, and so many middling talents are huge successes. I don't think there's any science to it. It's just a spin of the wheel, really.

  • How MeadowGrass headliners Blue Rodeo became Canada's most beloved band

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