With a voice that can melt butter and frontman good looks to match, Jim Cuddy has had us singing a long for four decades. Here, the musician on what’s next on his playlist
It’s a rare celebrity interviewee who rolls up on his bike, waving at you. At a café patio near his home in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood, a smiling Jim Cuddy smoothly hops off, locks his wheels and saunters over to talk, tall, lanky, friendly, with a few lonesome lines as the only facial evidence of his 63 years.
He is unmistakably the guy who co-leads one of Canada’s most beloved bands, Blue Rodeo (with lifelong friend Greg Keelor).
As we talk, patrons exchange familiar glances and nods. At one point, a local sportswriter and ex-colleague of mine passes by with his family and says hello to “Jim and Jim.”
“He’s a great guy,” Cuddy says of his journalist neighbour. “I played in a ball hockey league with him.”
We’re here to talk about Cuddy’s decision to produce his fifth solo album Countrywide Soul, a live-as-possible project recorded in the loft of the barn in the small country place he and his wife own near the town of Shelburne. We discuss his new renditions of old Blue Rodeo and Cuddy tunes, a faithful cover of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” and another cover — of Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up” — that had to be excised from the master recording after reports that Adams had a history of offering women career opportunities for sex.
“We’ve had some encounters with him over the years, and he’s not a particularly likable person,” Cuddy says of Adams. “So, it’s not like I’m a huge admirer. But I think he’s written some great songs, and that song is an amazing song in my opinion.
“It was an obvious choice,” he says of the excision. “I just think you can’t be insensitive to victims of somebody’s behaviour. But we have this great version of the song, and who knows? It might see the light of day sometime.”
And then we talk about another cover, “Almost Persuaded,” more famously covered by George Jones, about a man who’s dancing intimately with a woman who’s not his wife, sees the reflection of his wedding ring in her eyes and decides to stay faithful.
We both laugh about the late country carouser’s unlikely decision to do the right thing. “Yeah, George was always persuaded,” Cuddy says wryly.
But coming from someone who’s been married for more than 30 years, the song sounds more like an oath of fealty (he and his wife, actress Rena Polley, have two grown sons, Devin Cuddy and Sam Polley, both of whom have toured with their dad, and a daughter, Emma, who is not in the music business). “Almost Persuaded” is dedicated to the late owner of Mimi’s, a long-ago restaurant popular with the city’s Queen Street West music crowd, who demanded that her boys “never disappoint me.”
“But it’s funny. I just came back from one of these charity trips I did for MusiCounts. The people that are involved are friends: [Barenaked Ladies’] Ed Robertson, Barney Bentall. And the three of us are the rare guys in this business with long-term marriages.”
In fact, Jim Cuddy has a lot of long-term relationships. He and Keelor met in high school in North Toronto and still get the entire band together when Keelor is in the mood. He has lived in his neighbourhood for a generation, eschewing the big-city real-estate practice of “buying up” every few years. Musical friends-wise, you almost can’t swing a guitar without hitting someone who has played with him.
And Cuddy, as a solo artist and with Blue Rodeo, has been with the same label, Warner Music Canada, since the ’80s. It’s the longest artist-label relationship in Canada — but it started with a rejection letter. As a gag, as part of the art on Blue Rodeo’s first Greatest Hits album, there’s a copy of the letter from then label head Bob Roper saying that the band’s country-rock sound wasn’t hard enough (the label’s prize act at the time was Honeymoon Suite).
In an example of employees going the extra mile, then Warner publicist JoAnn Kaeding kept working on her boss. Former exec David Tollington remembers the hard sell. “The first time I saw the band was when Jo dragged us out
to Nag’s Head North. There were only two other people in the club that night, other than JoAnn, Roper and myself.”
There’d be bigger showcases, though. Blue Rodeo came up at a time in the mid-to-late ’80s when a new post-New Wave “scene” was developing on Toronto’s Queen Street West, adjacent to the Citytv-MuchMusic building. Most of it centred around the venerable Horseshoe Tavern, home to a community of like-minded acts.
“The Horseshoe just came to life,” says Colin Linden, of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and a busy Nashville producer. “One weekend, it would be Blue Rodeo, the next weekend it would be The Tragically Hip, the next weekend Cowboy Junkies, Pursuit of Happiness. It was a really great time in Toronto music.”
Says Cuddy: “We were signed because of JoAnn and because we were getting such great crowds on Queen Street. It was hard to ignore that there were so many people coming to see us.”
Music ran on the female side of Cuddy’s family. “My grandmother, Florence Bell, was a locally renowned singer in Prince Edward County,” he says, “a real grand dame who’d sing at church things and events.
“And my mother’s very musical. She sang in university and finished with a teaching degree, but she had an opportunity to go and tour with a big band. They wanted her to come to tour, and she decided she wanted to take a teaching job.”
The musical heritage has been passed down to Cuddy’s sons. “We forced our kids to take piano lessons until they were 16. No objections. Although they complained, it brought them into the world of music (The Devin Cuddy Band’s debut album Volume One was nominated for a Juno for roots and traditional
album of the year). Devin had a conflicted relationship, and then he declared he wanted to go to music school (he studied at York).
“Sam was much sneakier about his approach to music. They’d both written songs, and I don’t know how I’d missed it. Devin said, ‘I’m gonna make a record.’ And I said, ‘Well do you have any songs?’
“And he had a whole bunch of songs that he must have written on that piano, and somehow he’d avoided me. And Sam had done that, too, in his room on his guitar.” (Sam plays gigs in Toronto with a rockabilly band called Sam Polley and the Old Tomorrows.)
Growing up, Jim was the only one of three kids who showed a passionate interest in music. His brother, Loftus, a lawyer, “played the trumpet and was a music camp kind of kid.” His sister, Janet, has worked in film and is now an accountant for the spa brand Body Blitz.
Jim, meanwhile, was fascinated as a child with Roy Rogers and Burl Ives. All that strumming, folkie country stuff. “I was 10 when my parents got me a guitar — by my constant request. I sat down and really learned it.”
The high school meeting with Keelor was one of those accidents of history and a case of opposites attracting. After Cuddy graduated from Queen’s University, they formed a band called The Hi-Fis, which was signed to an indie Canadian label and which took them to New York where they hoped in vain for a break.
“They were a real Lennon and McCartney in terms of being two very, very different people with two different approaches to music,” Tollington recalls. “Not to take away from Jim as a stand-alone artist, but I think Blue Rodeo was more than the sum of its parts because of those two guys together.
“Greg had kind of a more album view. His songs weren’t necessarily accessible to radio. Jim was more pointed; his songs were more immediate.”
And he was the good-looking frontman, I suggest. “And Greg was the cranky bastard,” Tollington adds with a laugh. “Again, not to take away from Jim because he’s an absolute sweetheart and always has been. Greg would put up this front but if you got him alone, he was a marshmallow.
“But Jim also used his good looks when it suited him. He’d give you that big smile, and then you’d be surprised when he got aggressive. Being the band’s contact at the record company, all my negotiations were with him. It got pretty rigorous.”
Though they became everybody’s friend, Cuddy admits that their time in New York didn’t suggest that music was a friendly environment. But on returning to Toronto, they met a local musical legend named Handsome Ned.
He’s not a household name today, but Ned — a country singer who died at age 30 of a heroin overdose — was the godfather of the roots-rock scene that would take over Toronto. “It was all Handsome Ned, living in The Cameron (his home venue), assembling a small circle of friends that expanded to include most of Queen Street,” Cuddy recalls. “He created that camaraderie, and we joined in.”
His death, Cuddy recalls, “was so inevitable. I wasn’t really aware at the time of the drug scene. But looking back and hearing stories, it was incredible he lasted as long and accomplished as much as he did.”
Ned’s legacy, Cuddy says, was a community that took root. “The nice thing about having friends in music is if you ask them to do something they do it. And you return the favour.”
The culmination of that vibe was undoubtedly Blue Rodeo’s Five Days in July, a fan-favourite album that was meant to be a bit of a lark, a 1993 party-cum-recording session at Keelor’s farm east of Toronto. “It was supposed to be a fast and easy record,” Tollington says. “They were burnt out, and the
idea was we would do this quick, almost-live album up at the farm.”
“I’m old enough to remember the ’60s. It was very reminiscent of a house party in the country. A lot of friends, a lot of good vibes, people just kind of floating around, and it was beautiful.” remembers Tollington. “As soon as I got out of the car, it hit me like a warm breeze in the spring, before I heard anything. Everyone had smiles on their faces. Kids were playing. Family, friends, other musicians. They weren’t all necessarily connected to the recording. They were just there. They recorded in Greg’s house. They had a sunroom in the back. It was kind of the vocal booth. That’s where I was when Sarah McLachlan did her bit on one of the songs. Sarah was on a stool beside me, and that’s when I saw Jim, who wasn’t singing on that song, singing harmony in Sarah’s ear so she could ‘get’ it. Because Jim could sing harmony to Greg in his sleep.”
“That was definitely a ‘bridge record’ for us,” Cuddy says of Five Days in July. “We were so tired from the Lost Together tour, but we weren’t trying to slap something down. We had two records worth of demos, one was electric and one was acoustic, and we got the acoustic stuff together and decided to have fun.
“But it was also a revelation of how good things sounded from [sound engineer] Doug McClement’s truck. We learned it was entirely possible to do a whole record just playing together.”
When Warner finally signed Blue Rodeo and released the eventual hit debut album Outskirts in 1987, it sat there. “We got taken out for snacks,” Cuddy says. “The meal you got was the equivalent of how you were doing, so if you were doing poorly, you didn’t even get lunch. You got snacks at the [now defunct soul food restaurant] Underground Railroad. And the guy basically told us, ‘If it doesn’t pick up, we’re going to drop you.’”
It’s gobsmacking that it took seven months for somebody to release the breakthrough single “Try,” a beautiful, aching love ballad, entirely buoyed by Cuddy’s voice in full emotional flight. It broke through, turning the album into a huge Canadian hit, and — for a minute — an entry point into the U.S.
First, Rolling Stone reviewed the album with the words, “the best new American band may very well be Canadian.”
Then came Meryl Streep. In what amounted to a phone call out of the blue, Blue Rodeo was asked to perform, as per Streep’s request, in the 1990 Mike Nichols film Postcards From the Edge (based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Carrie Fisher), where Streep played a singer.
“The way we were told,” Cuddy recalls, “was that when Meryl Streep was making another movie [She Devil], she was being driven from Connecticut to New York or the other way around, and the limo driver played her a bunch of stuff, and she really liked Blue Rodeo.
“So she mentioned it to [the film’s composer] Howard Shore, and Howard said he knew us and, being Canadian, he phoned our management.
“It was a bizarre call. ‘Would you like to be in a Meryl Streep movie?’
“It was fun, amazing. And Meryl was really good to us. All the time she wasn’t shooting, we’d sit around and play songs. She’d bring us stuff like Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is,” and we’d learn it and she’d sing. And then she’d be called back by Mike Nichols to do a scene with Gene Hackman.
“That was great. But we went from that movie directly back to our lives. I remember a bar in Louisville called Uncle Pleasant’s, and it was an absolute dump. And we had gone from beautiful suites in Hollywood to back on our own in shitty clubs and shitty pointless touring.
“So that might have been one of the nails in the coffin,” Cuddy says with a laugh. Like their musical cousins The Tragically Hip, the band accepted their “big in Canada” status.
“We loved everything we did in Canada,” Cuddy says. “It was fun. It was fun going to the North. It was fun seeing all these little towns. It wasn’t as much fun going to Cleveland.”
Inevitably, Keelor’s resistance to touring led to Cuddy’s decision 21 years ago to record his first solo album, All in Time, featuring key Blue Rodeo players, guitarist Colin Cripps and bassist Bazil Donovan, both of whom have hung on with him.
When I suggest his band is basically Blue Rodeo minus Greg, Cuddy laughs and says, “It’s kind of like we’re ghosting Blue Rodeo. Bazil was always my guy, the best bass player I’ve ever seen. He’s sort of the beacon, so when I’m doing all this, I know I can count on him.
“Colin’s another collaborator but in a different sense. Greg and I were each creating our own songs. But Colin is a collaborator in the sense that he helps me and supports me.”
As befits his energy, Cuddy is on the road six months of the year. He says the same wasn’t true for his bandmate.
“Greg basically got tired. The physical demands of playing and touring are much more extreme for him than they are for me. Even from the beginning, when we were in high school, I would have to say I’m surprised he committed himself so early for so long. Because he was not that kind of guy.
“Now we say, ‘This is the number of gigs we’ll do together, and we’ll make sure they’re enjoyable.’”
For his part, Cuddy doesn’t want to stop. Last December, when Keelor wasn’t available for the more-or-less annual Blue Rodeo & Friends food-bank fundraiser at the Horseshoe Tavern, it became the Jim Cuddy Band. He just re-signed with Warner, a contract “that pretty much takes me to the end.
“It’s still a privilege to record. It’s not pressure at all. And even after that, I’ll still play. It would never occur to me to stop until my skills diminish. And the way to keep your skills up is to play.”
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2019 issue with the headline, “The Troubadour Next Door,” p. 35-43.