Just sixteen months after releasing the sublime Constellation, singer-songwriter and Blue Rodeo front man Jim Cuddy resurfaced in May with Countrywide Soul—another volume of exquisite Canadiana bound by the veteran’s singularly magnificent voice.
However, Countrywide Soul is not Cuddy’s fifth studio album. By design, it’s actually not a studio album at all. Rather, it’s a loving homage to the tight-knit family of musicians that have helped to weave the sonic fabric of his two-decades-long solo career. Last summer, Colin Cripps (guitar), Bazil Donovan (bass), Joel Anderson (drums), Anne Lindsay (violin), and Steve O'Connor (keyboards) joined Cuddy on his Southern Ontario farmstead to record a collection of tracks live, hoping to organically harness the vibrant on-stage chemistry they achieved during their long run of road shows to support Constellation.
“When we go into the studio to make records, the songs are born out of my imagination,” Cuddy explains in a press release from his label, Warner Music Canada, “and the band contributes their incredible talents to make those ideas come to life. The songs evolve and become part of our collective imagination. But it is on tour that they really take flight.”
Translating that immediate, connected experience successfully into a static medium isn’t an easy task, but Cuddy and company have done so with such warmth and expert confidence that the songs envelop the listener as though they were in the same room with the band on those summer days. Atmosphere was key in that equation, and the recording captures the vocal and instrumental acoustics as they would authentically sound bouncing off the wooden wall and floor planks of Cuddy’s barn.
Countrywide Soul reimagines a swath of selections from both the Blue Rodeo and his solo catalogs. “When choosing songs for the album,” Cuddy recalls, “I tried to find those in which I could change the mood and tone, as in ‘All in Time,’ or songs that had been underdeveloped on previous records such as ‘Clearer View.’”
Cuddy also tackles covers of George Jones’ “Almost Persuaded,” a song Blue Rodeo performed live in their formative years, and Glen Campbell’s 1975 ubiquitous country crossover standard, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” And, there are two excellent new tracks to savor: the bright, crisp “Glorious Day” and the twangy two-stepper, “Back Here Again.”
This past spring, Cuddy also contributed to fellow Canadian musician Corey Hart’s latest EP, Dreaming Time Again, where the two shared vocals on the track “First Rodeo.” They appeared on stage together to perform the song during Hart’s June 14th Never Surrender 2019 Tour stop at Budweiser Stage in Toronto.
Last month, I had the good fortune of sitting down with Cuddy for the second time in as many years to discuss Countrywide Soul, his performing ethos, and how he protects his most valuable instrument.
So, before we get started, I asked you a question when we interviewed last year about what creative obstacles challenge you and you shared that you haven’t experienced a significant case of writer’s block, and immediately regretted that you’d said it. Please tell me I didn’t jinx you.
[Laughs] Yeah, no. You didn’t give me the yips. It’s okay.
The live feel of Countrywide Soul is exceptional, and I know the aim was to capture the collaborative energy you have as a band when you’re on stage. Obviously, you’ve accumulated a chemistry over the years when you’re performing live. How do you work on developing the artistry of that? I’m sure you must communicate and ideate differently in that kind of setting versus when you’re working in the studio.
Yeah, totally. I think the difference between making a studio record and making this record was that with a studio record, I sort of direct everything. I have a way that I want things to go, and I’m listening to people’s parts—it’s obviously collaborative, but it’s being guided. This one, I pretty much stood back, you know? This was one so relaxing for me because…I mean, I had to get good vocal takes. I had to get myself in good shape and be ready to go.
But, really the interplay—I’m playing acoustic guitar, so I’m just a rhythm instrument—is among all those soloists and the rhythm section. And, that was one of the most beautiful things to see. We’d figure out who was going to solo where and when, and for how many bars. And, then they have to coordinate with each other. The fascinating thing for me was watching everybody else back off when somebody was soloing—or add.
When you’re making a studio record, people can just throw all their stuff on there, because it can always be contoured later. But, not when you’re making a live record. And certainly not when we all play live. When we play live, they have to comp with each other’s solos, or do something complementary. Or maybe that’s what comping means. [laughs]
But, I just sit back. I let them work it out. I mean, obviously, I have suggestions, and I certainly have a way that I think the song should go. But, it was great for me to watch the wisdom of these musicians and how they could so quickly work it out.
The aesthetic you were working for translates so well, and you can hear it in the bottom end of the recording, especially. You can almost feel the reverb of the instruments there as you might through the floor boards in the room where you were playing.
Yeah. It’s just the upper roof of our barn, and for some reason it just sounds so perfect. It’s not too dead and it’s not too live. I’ve written a few songs up there, and I’ve been up there when there’s been an absolutely wicked storm. And, I thought, ‘ooh…I wonder how good this barn is.’ And it’s totally dry, totally great, and you feel so safe in there and it’s really thrilling. Other than being a little hot in there, the sounds just were so beautifully contained in there.
I didn’t think we’d be able to get as electric as we got on “Glorious Day.” And, yet, that was played by everybody looking at each other. And, you know, some things have to be buried, and the keyboard player’s in the house, but other than that, everybody’s just sitting there playing with each other.
I was saying to somebody earlier that I don’t think twenty years ago I could’ve made a record like this. Even though it sounds simple, it requires so much experience from the players. If you make a big mistake, that take’s ruined—you’ve got to start again. And, everybody had fun. I told them, “we’re not overdubbing your solos. This is it! You’ve gotta get ‘em!” It was never a question of, ‘oh, is that take okay?’ It was a question of listening and asking, ‘which solo do you like the best?’ They’re all amazing players.
Thinking about Countrywide Soul as this snapshot of a recorded event—if you could choose a performance or a studio session from some point in music history and be present for it, what would it be?
Oh! Well, to tell you the truth—and this is just a little tangential—we were in Abbey Road [Studios] when Blondie was recording in the “A” studio. I thought, ‘this is where the Beatles made those records!’ I’ve always been fascinated by the fractious [sessions] for Abbey Road. It would have been amazing to be, you know, a fly on the wall—or Yoko—when they were doing those recordings. It’s just so strange to have the control room up the stairs.
So, I think that any Beatles recording at all, when they were actually playing together in their latter years. Pssh. That would be amazing.
It’s funny you mention that because I was just in Liverpool a few weeks ago and had an opportunity, briefly, to visit some of the significant Beatles sites there. It was amazing to piece those together as I saw them.
Did you go in the pub and sit below the picture of them?
The pub? No, I didn’t make it there, unfortunately.
We did end up at the Cavern Club on Mathew Street.
If you went to the Cavern, the pub is right beside it. And, you can sit in a chair where there’s a picture of a very young Beatles sitting in that chair.
Well, I guess I have something to add to the list the next time I’m there. A group of friends and I had a really short amount of time to get around and see everything before I had to catch a train to Edinburgh.
It’s very cool. People constantly take pictures of themselves. And, they all have pints. George looks twelve! [laughs]
I’m sure they were already drinking pints when they were twelve. It is Liverpool…
[Laughs] Of course!
I wanted to ask you about some of the songs you chose to include on Countrywide Soul. I particularly love “Glorious Day,” which you mentioned earlier. I hear the lyrics as an expression of thankfulness and grace, which seems to be a place from which you’ve been writing a lot lately.
Completely. I think certainly as you get older, life gets riskier and the successes of being alive become more apparent. I think it’s also about being dragged down by age-old habits. But, yeah, it’s about the beauty of a particularly lovely day.
And then there’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” I remember hearing that song a lot when I was a kid on AM radio, and of course Glen Campbell had such a phenomenal voice. Is there an emotional connection you have to that song, or was it just intriguing to revisit from a musical perspective?
Not an emotional identification, because if that’s mid-70s, then I’m starting to move on at that time in my life. I love that song. Always loved that song. I mean, maybe at that point since music was heavier, it could be considered a guilty pleasure, but I never really felt that way. I just felt like those songs—“Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston”—they were just great songs. And, I think for me it was listening to somebody else cover it. There’s a guy, George Canyon, who was covering it up here and, I thought, ‘that’s just a fantastic song!’ And, the more you learn the song, the more you realize that it’s just absolutely brilliant. It’s not a simple song. It’s not a simple chord structure, and it’s not simple to sing. It’s got a very broad range. And, it’s a great story.
So, in that three minutes, there’s a lot accomplished. I love playing now for crowds because people know the song and some don’t even know why they know the song. But, they know [it], and they’re smiling and singing along. Everybody sings at, “like a rhinestone cowboy.” It has that pervasiveness as just one of those songs that everybody let in at some time.
I would not be doing my due diligence as a Canadian child of the eighties if I didn’t ask you about your collaboration with Corey Hart on “First Rodeo.” And the mutual fan that ignited the whole idea of you two working together, Jacki Andre, is actually a friend of mine. So, it was fun to see that all come together from different angles. How did you end up getting pulled in?
Oh yeah! Is that right? Jacki. Yeah, she made it happen. Definitely made it happen. Now, I didn’t think that. I thought when [producer] Bob Ezrin called me that he wanted me to sing because he picked my vocals! But, no! [laughs] It was her! It was her putting that bug in Corey’s ear, and then Corey asking [Bob], and then him asking me.
But, you know, I have known of Corey for years, and met him so briefly. But, I never really knew him. So, it was an afternoon in the studio with Bob Ezrin, who I’ve known for years. And [Corey]’s a frickin’ delightful guy, and he can really sing and really play, and he’s really fun. And, you know, I said to Bob, [laughs] “I never do this anymore. If somebody wants me to sing, they send me the tapes and I do it with my engineer,” right? I hate being told what to sing. And Bob said, “oh, no problem!” And, then he was telling me what to sing right away! Absolutely right away. I was, like, ‘fuck! You’re breaking all my rules!’
But, he was great. His suggestions were absolutely dead-on. They were a little worried that I might not want to be associated with the “rodeo” song, and I said, “I don’t have a problem with that! I love it in our [band’s] name, and I think this is a good song. So, no problem there.” So, that was great.
I’m not at all surprised that the two of you hit it off. You’re both such thoughtful songwriters and you both take your craft so seriously. I was really pleased to see that happen.
Yeah, that was fun. I look forward to getting to know him better. He’s a great guy. And, he’s got a great story, you know? Being so popular and then stopping just because you and your wife just don’t like the craziness and moving to an island. I mean, it requires a certain amount of success to be able to do that, but it’s still quite something. I don’t know a lot of musicians that could stop.
Right. And I was at what was supposed to be his farewell concert at Centre Bell in Montréal.
What year was that?
It was in 2014. It was supposed to happen on his birthday on May 31st, and it ended up getting bumped to June 3rd because the Montréal Canadiens made it to the NHL playoffs that year, and they scheduled a game right on top of it. It was quite the rollercoaster.
Oh, so was that the one where he was talked into doing again? He hadn’t played for so many years and ended up doing it again and he sold out the Bell Centre?
Exactly. It really was an outstanding show. He played for four hours and sang until his voice essentially gave out. It was such an emotional night. I’ve loved his music since I was nine years old, so being there was an incredible experience. He’s so underrated as a performer.
His Juno [Awards] performance was killer. Just killer! It’s been a long time since Canada’s had a real rock star, you know? A real “stand-on-the-piano” rock star. And he does that without making people think, ‘oh, God! What’s he doing?!’ It’s, like, ‘that’s awesome, Corey! Get up there!’ [laughs]
You talked about your personal rules as a performer a few minutes ago. What are the things on which you won’t negotiate or stray from when you’re creating?
Most of the things are self-discipline, you know? I never drink when I sing—all those kinds of things. It’s been interesting because I did last year’s tour with my sons [Devin Cuddy and Sam Polley], and I realized that I impose a very high level of discipline and professionalism. And, they respond very well, you know? They’re young boys, so they drink at night, they do what they want, but they’ve never, ever let me down. They’ve never shown up late, they were never messed up from having too much fun.
And, I guess those are the things that I, without consciously doing it, impose on the people around me. I think everybody in my world does that anyway, so they don’t really need lessons from me.
Other than that, it’s just the protection of what I do. I never sell songs to commercials. I’m not opposed to other people doing that, but it’s just not my way. Again, Bob Ezrin and Corey broke my rule—I don’t usually go to somebody to sing with them, because it’s…I don’t know, it’s just awkward for me. I’m very prickly about being told what to sing. And so I don’t want to show that side of myself to people, like, ‘yeah, I can be a real asshole!’ You probably don’t want to know that. [laughs]
But other than that, I’m pretty flexible. I’ve learned over the years to not get too hung up on things that could go wrong. I can remember not long ago doing a TV show, and we were doing it live. And I just had this bad feeling about the way things were going. I said to everybody, “be prepared to have no monitors,” and anyway, that’s what happened—completely no monitors. I remember a number of years ago watching the GRAMMYs, and Celine Dion was singing—and she was just singing with the piano. So, it was a big moment. And, I could see her futzing with her monitor in her ear. And, then she just took it out and put it down, and then she just sang. So, she was clearly singing without monitors, just in the room, and she never exposed on her face that this was stressful for her. And, she did an amazing, beautiful job.
I admired that—just being able to perform and sing, and allowing people to make mistakes, because they do.
And how do you protect your voice? I ask because it’s such a valuable part of your identity as an artist, and I marvel at how well you’ve been able to preserve it over so many years. Are there specific things you do routinely to accomplish that?
Well, about ten years ago, I had polyps removed from my vocal cords, which was probably from previous damage and it got to that point. Maybe twelve years ago, now. But, at that point, I imposed a rigid discipline on myself, and there are all kinds of things I don’t do before I sing. And there’s this other thing called an IGG test, which is very discredited by doctors. But, it shows you—and you get a naturopath to give it to you—any foods you have a delayed allergic reaction to, which usually shows up in inflammation. It showed me that I was super fuckin’ allergic to eggs. If I’d taken a normal allergy test, it probably wouldn’t have shown up. But, once I took eggs out of my diet entirely—anything that’s made with eggs—I no longer had trouble with my falsetto.
And, I had put this to doctor friends of mine, and they said, “well…if you believe that…” And, I said, “look, if I make a mistake and eat something with eggs in it, I know exactly what’s going to happen. It makes me feel like somebody’s got a hand on my throat. So, how can you reconcile that? I do believe it.” It helped me immensely.
That, and just treating my voice with a lot of care. Once I had that sort of new lease on my voice, I just have never f**ked around with it. And, it’s also playing a lot. I rarely go long periods of time without singing. I feel it’s a muscle that requires conditioning, and there are people out there who are singing into their 70s and 80s, and I figure that’s the new benchmark.
I want to be one of those people, too.