A Little Time On His Own

from the Montreal Gazette used without permission

For 13 years, Jim Cuddy has played yin to Greg Keelor's yang, the countrified balladeer to Keelor's scraggly rocker, together providing Blue Rodeo with its own one-two punch. And so it might have continued indefinitely, a Beatle-esque partnership based on shared songwriting and intertwining harmonies, had Keelor not taken a header off a mountain a few years back, a life-defining moment that sent him to the woodshed in 1996 to write and record a solo album. It was an experience that also left his mates, especially Cuddy, wondering what would become of the band. "There was no big blowup about it. Quite the opposite.

Everyone took a cautious approach to what it all meant," Cuddy said during a recent visit to Montreal. "Each of us was quietly dealing with the possibility that Greg might not come back." Cuddy responded by also hunkering down to write, the result of which is All in Time, his just-released first solo album. He admits that he was moved by a "strong desire not to be left back on the farm" while Keelor broke free of the band. "I didn't have anything to work out or get out of my system. I guess I realized that if Blue Rodeo was going to break up, I'd better see what I could do on my own."

In the end, fears of a breakup were unfounded. Keelor did come back and last year the band released its seventh album, Tremolo. For Cuddy, All in Time and Tremolo were part of a creative continuum, as he spent more than a year writing and recording the two albums. Cuddy's record is a thoughtful collection of mid-tempo, fiddle-powered country rock, modeled after the introspection of early Jackson Browne albums like For Everyman and Late for Sky. He enlisted Maritime fiddler Melanie Doane, BR bandmates James Gray and Bazil Donovan as well as Wilco's Jay Bennet and Jeff Tweedy to help achieve that sound. No insult intended, the album sounds pretty much like Blue Rodeo, with Cuddy's achy, heart-on-the-sleeve vocals as the emotional focal point. "I don't know how much I could have gotten away from that Blue Rodeo sound," Cuddy acknowledged. "I do know that after living with the songs for six or seven months, I moved on to work on Tremolo. When I came back to it, I realized I needed to add some edge to it.

That's when we recorded All in Time, which has more guitars and a straight-ahead rhythm." All in Time gave Cuddy a chance to experiment with arrangements and sounds different from those available within the confines of Blue Rodeo. His harmonies, so inextricably linked to Keelor's, are just as pretty when twinned with those of Colin Cripps, Michele McAdorey and Sarah Harmer, all habitues of the Toronto music scene. Landing Tweedy and Bennet turned out to be as simple as asking.

"Bazil heard that they were going to be playing a set at one of the record stores, so he got it into his head that he'd go down and ask them to sit in," Cuddy related. "I thought, 'Yeah right, good luck.'" Within a matter of hours the pair arrived at the studio, demanding nothing more than Diet Cokes before settling in to work. "They're really nice guys who don't talk a lot," Cuddy said. "I'm not sure I'd know what to say to them if I met them on the street tomorrow." Tweedy and Bennett sing and play on I'll Make Believe It's You, a honky-tonker about closing time. Cuddy calls it a mock memorial to Blue Rodeo's bad old days at the Horseshoe Tavern, when every temptation known to man had a way of turning up at last call. "They were right into it. I have a feeling those boys knew a thing or two about excess. It was beautiful to watch them. Jay Bennett is a whiz kid on so many instruments. We laid down the track and then he went back and added the banjo. Just beautiful."

So now, having tasted the fruit of working solo, is Cuddy himself ready to cut his ties to Blue Rodeo? The band, while a mainstay of Canadian music, has yet to break through in the U.S. Why not take his lanky good looks and tough-but-tender music (hello Chris Isaak) and try his luck alone? He insists it isn't going to happen. "I'm more committed than ever to Blue Rodeo. After doing our solo projects, both Greg and I have come back to the band with new ideas about music. If you want to be there, there's no problem finding things to make music about." One last thing. All in Time's album cover features a symbolic crossroads, a cross within a circle, denoting the beginning of a journey.

Having made this record does Cuddy consider his journey complete? "If you're lucky, you're always on a journey", he said. Whether that meant moving with Keelor to New York in the early 1980's to kick-start a music career, or moving back to Toronto in time to be part of the groundswell that propelled Jeff Healey and the Cowboy Junkies up the charts, or even the decision to quit his day job dressing sets for TV commercials to play in a bar band: "Every decision I've ever made, no matter how far removed it seemed at the time, has led me to where I am now. A little voice guided me," Cuddy said with a conspiratorial smile. "It said, 'You're an artist. You had better make music."