TORONTO — The boyhood friendship between Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor has given way to one of the most fruitful songwriting partnerships in Canadian music history. In the 25 years since releasing hit debut Outskirts, Blue Rodeo has amassed 11 Juno wins and watched as each of their 12 studio albums have reached gold or platinum certification in Canada. But it hasn’t necessarily been an easy ride.
On Sunday, Blue Rodeo will be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the Juno Awards. The Canadian Press asked co-frontman Cuddy to look back at Blue Rodeo’s quarter-century of hits, slips and near-splits.
Answers have been edited and condensed.
CP: Blue Rodeo has won dozens of awards over the years. How is this one different?
JC: Oh, there’s no doubt it’s different. Any time you’re being rewarded for your entire career, it’s a good deal. And I think that what’s also good is that it hits Blue Rodeo at a time when everyone’s comfortable looking back. This band is not particularly comfortable patting itself on the back.
CP: You’ve spent some time looking back recently. Has that given you new insights into old albums? Does it make you wish you could change things?
JC: I don’t have any revisionist dreams, ’cause we couldn’t have done anything other than we did. I look back at (1995’s) Nowhere to Here and I realize that was a band at complete conflict and crisis. And the fact that we even got a record out was amazing. That was not a pleasant record for me to revisit. But how to change it? You can’t possibly change it. We’ve somehow managed to keep the carnival rolling along.
CP: Was that time around Nowhere to Here the most difficult in the band’s history?
JC: Oh, without a doubt. And it was sort of funny that it followed very closely on the heels of the most blissful time. But it was a time when everyone was just discontent. Greg hurt himself at the studios, he was all banged up. It was winter and we were all crammed inside. It was really the exact inverse of the making of (1993’s) Five Days in July, (which) was all bliss and open doors and all friends around.
There’s probably one record that’s underperformed, which is (1997’s) Tremolo. And that’s because we were so careful around each other. We could do much more with those songs. But the fact that we were in the studio together playing it, that was a big deal. And that led to some very good things.
CP: Was there a time you were worried that the band would split?
JC: Sure. Christ. I was worried that if the band did stay together, I couldn’t stand it (laughs). In ’98, when Greg did his first solo record, there was the thought that he might not come back, and that was kind of why I did my solo record. It was difficult to see how we could resolve all the conflict of Nowhere to Here. But you just do.
It is kind of amazing in a band’s life where you have people that are not really getting along, and who do have substantial philosophical differences, and yet they’re able to sing on each other’s songs and perform with each other and create a record. You’re allowed within the confines of this band to go right out of your mind and then allowed to come back. Some don’t come back, but most have. The ones we needed came back.
CP: Given that your relationship with Greg has survived all that it has, there must be something keeping you two together.
JC: We have that combination that lots of great friends have: we are very different and on some fundamental level we’re very similar. I certainly admire things about Greg that I would never apprehend about myself. Greg’s iconoclast ways are pretty enjoyable to be around.
We’ve remained very good friends. If Nowhere to Here was the peak of conflict . . . you burn that out of yourself. We don’t have the energy to fight like that anymore. And maybe that’s one of the reasons the Hall of Fame does elicit a very positive feeling in the band. We see all the times that were fraught with the possibility of breaking up or losing popularity. All the things that could have happened have not happened. And it’s pretty hard not to be grateful.
CP: You started in music when you were very young. At what point did it become clear this would be your career? Did you know early on?
JC: No, no, I didn’t feel like that at all. I felt like I was only going to do this for a couple years and then I would have to get a job — like a real job. Even in the early days of being a musician in New York, before Blue Rodeo, I took the LSATS and applied to law school. I had four years of deferment. And then they said, “if you don’t want to come, don’t come.” It was at that time that I realized I was kidding myself thinking that I could step away from something that was really vital to me and step into some other career.
CP: Blue Rodeo has rarely pandered to industry trends. Where does that uncompromising spirit come from?
JC: I think it was borne of failure. It was borne of many years of being in Toronto and then being in New York and failing at this pursuit of recording contracts. We thought, ’This is pure charlatan-ville.’ These people are completely delusional. We came from an ethic — the ’60s ethic — of don’t mix your music with commerce if you can help it. Don’t sell your songs to commercials, don’t allow yourself to be used for something else, don’t foul the waters of imagery that people have about songs. That was easy for us.
CP: What was the most disastrous show Blue Rodeo ever played?
JC: The worst show was at Maple Leaf Gardens (in 1996). It was such an ascension to get to that point — especially for Toronto people. And we were at a PARTICULARLY bad time within the band. We were at this time in the band … (where) we didn’t go onstage with a setlist. We just vibed it. I don’t know whether pot was involved (in that decision), but maybe. But it was just awful, and we had had this fight with Greg about something … and it was just disastrous. The review actually was absolutely accurate, just: “This was the most jumbled mess of a show.”
We laugh about it now, and we were certainly knocked off our pins then. But it was also good for us to think we’re not infallible. We had so much positive push to get to that point. It just messed it up so bad.
CP: You’ve said that Blue Rodeo’s history is a series of eras. How would you characterize the era you’re in right now?
JC: This will be known as the “Greg’s Ears Era.” Because Greg’s ears have been so damaged by his crazy guitar-playing over the years that he’s very sensitive. A year and a half ago, it was critical to the point where we wondered whether he could get back onstage. Then of course we realized that he could and in the summer we had a good gig, but it’s transforming us.
We’ve made all kinds of accommodations to try to change the stage sound and do different songs. So this is the era of Greg’s Ears.
CP: How long do you see your partnership with Greg lasting?
JC: I think it will just go on. Within the band in general … we’ve been able to create a working situation and a friendship situation that allows everybody to be who we are now in our mid-50s. So people go off and do their solo stuff and they come back, and there’s no jealousy or ego about that.
I don’t think that our work ethic or our quality ethic has ever slipped. I think that if we have a bad gig now, we’re just as at each other in the dressing room as we ever were, and that’s remarkable because that’s 10,000 gigs later.
My relationship with Greg was never bad. It’s just that we worked so hard for a number of years, we took a lot out on each other. I think we did pretty well considering how much conflict we could have gotten in. We’re friends. We will always be friends.