By Michael Hollett
After turning off the main highway, about 90 minutes outside Toronto, you drive down a dirt road followed by another dirt road that leads to a dead end to get to Canadian music legend Jim Cuddy’s family’s farm.
A modest A-frame with a new addition attached and a weathered barn dot a rolling landscape with a hilltop view of a pond and woods below. Cuddy offers a warm welcome and a seat at an immense harvest table in a bright and sunny kitchen that’s clearly been designed to be the focal point of indoor activity in this beautiful country place that he and his wife bought with his sisters-in-law years ago.
Cuddy will be heading back down that dirt road soon for another summer of touring, including a bunch of Western Canada gigs, both with his original band, Blue Rodeo, as well as his decades old solo project, The Jim Cuddy Band (JCB).
More than 30 years into a legendary music career, Cuddy, clearly, still loves to play.
After serving up drinks, Cuddy rubs his hands together in glee discussing making music with friends, whether it’s around a campfire, in the barn just outside, or on stage in front of tens of thousands of people.
“It’s easy to keep it fresh,” he says with a smile. “JCB has been a band for 21 years. Remarkable for any band, let alone a second band. Playing is fun for us. We don’t get enough chance to do it.”
Playing live means there’s always something to figure out. The musicianship and the adaptability of the musicians allows Cuddy to constantly reimagine his shows and the nature of the performances.
“The lifeblood of a band is to play together, we have so many great times when we’re doing gigs. We enjoy it, that’s what’s fun. It’s enjoyable playing music and it’s enjoyable playing with people who are really really good.”
Cuddy proudly beams, speaking of the great musicians he gets to work with in Blue Rodeo and JCB, and three artists — bedrock bass player Bazil Donovan, guitarist Colin Cripps and, occasionally, violinist Anne Lindsay — play with both outfits.
Cuddy likes to stay busy, needs to, and he formed his solo band, in part, to fill the down time between Blue Rodeo projects.
A self-described “schemer,” Cuddy loves making plans and hatching ideas. A recent scheme saw Cuddy turn this farm into a recording studio when he spied an opening in his schedule last September. Itching to make a new record, he spotted a three-day gap in his touring and decided to record a “live from the floor” album in his barn with his solo band and his latest, the excellent Countrywide Soul, is the result.
He’s also a jammer. Regardless of how busy he is each year at Canada’s JUNO Awards, Cuddy and his friends host a legendary, late-night jam suite that’s all about playing and little about schmoozing. And every summer, he and his family host a massive weekend long party at this farm, with camping, that inevitably ends up around the fire pit with guitars picked and voices blending around the flames.
Playing guitar one night by himself in his barn, trapped inside by a torrential downpour, the acoustics and the setting inspired him to call the band in to record.
And while Cuddy usually has a firm hand in his recording process, he wanted the players and the playing to define the new album. A tractor trailer with a mobile studio negotiated the tiny dirt road into the farm and Cuddy became just another player in the project.
“I wanted to do it like a kitchen party; it’s part of the fun. We sat in our seats and we played the songs as if we were just playing them for each other, just sharing the joy of music, and it worked. You’re not editing when you’re just playing, you’re just enjoying how everybody plays. I just wanted to sit in my chair and be a member of the band.
“A lot of times I didn’t listen to playbacks; typically I’d be listening to everything and that would be how we build a record. It was nice not to feel chained to every decision.”
With everything being recorded live, there were no “do-overs,” no re-working of solos or fine tuning with edits. And clearly that was part of the fun for Cuddy. He loved giving his players the space to play.
“It was fun in a three-ring circus, put up the tent and bring in the jugglers kind of way. I like that, especially if it has a calm and friendly centre. It’s about what Steve Earle would say, “magnetize the fucker,” to put that joy on record.”
He contrasts these sessions with Blue Rodeo’s process.
“Blue Rodeo recording is very complicated because there are two singers, two songwriters and two methods and so it’s very different. Whatever we have done in the past will not be what we do in the future, if we record. There was a little talk about making another record but there hasn’t been any talk since last summer. Greg Keelor has a solo record coming out so I don’t know when we’ll get to that point. If there comes a time the Blue Rodeo guys say we should record, I’ll be ready, or I’ll just keep going on my own. It’s fortunate for me to have these choices.”
The new album features reworkings of some old Blue Rodeo and Jim Cuddy tracks, two new songs and a couple of cool covers.
Asked if we can expect a full album of covers some day, Cuddy’s hardcore work ethic comes out.
“I would do one or two covers on an album, I wouldn’t do more than that. I feel like my worth as a musician is about songwriting and singing and if I’m not doing that, then I’m not doing my job. If the balance was more towards covers I just wouldn’t feel right. That is my job and I’m supposed to do my job. It might be fun but I wouldn’t be satisfied.”
Blue Rodeo performs Saturday, July 6 at the Canalta Centre (Medicine Hat), Saturday, August 10 at the Edmonton Folk Festival, Saturday, August 17 at the Vancouver Folk Festival
The Jim Cuddy Band performs Thursday, August 15 at the Butchart Garden’s Summer Concert Series (Victoria) and Friday, August 16 at the Salmon Arm Roots & Blues Festival.Blue Rodeo, Jim Cuddy