There are very few bands that manage to genuinely bridge the gap between country and rock/pop music. Too many of them end up forgetting that all they have to do is remember where rock and roll came from in the first place and they’ll be able to get the right feel and sound. Instead what you get is bands playing rock music but throwing a pedal steel guitar in for effect, or country bands throwing in an occasional burning guitar solo.
In each case the effect is more jarring than pleasing to the ear. Of the bands and individual artists that have attempted to mix the two genres the only three that I know of from the past thirty to forty years (that doesn’t mean there aren’t others) with any degree of success were “The Byrds”, “The Grateful Dead”, and “Graham Parsons and the Grievous Angels”. Since then while bands like the “Flying Burrito Brothers” may have attempted such experiments its been left to a bunch of city boys from Toronto Ontario to pick up that torch.
“Blue Rodeo”, unlike a number of their contemporaries, seems to have found the perfect balance of sensibilities to create a fusion of the two genres. Their songs have a timeless feel that doesn’t tie them to one era, allowing one to believe they could have been recorded anywhere from the fifties in the Sun Record studios with Elvis just down the hall, or in a more contemporary setting with any number of current rock bands.
Their current album, Are You Ready is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. No matter what the tempo or topic the songs, with one note worthy exception, bring the best of both worlds together. Country’s heart felt emotions are rid of cheap sentimentality by a world-weary rock attitude.
Where most bands stumble when attempting this merger, “Blue Rodeo” excels: the actual crafting of the songs. On Are You Ready the predominant theme is of love lost and relationships ending. Pretty standard heartbreak country stuff you might think, that doesn’t have a hope in hell of sounding palatable. But in the hands of the song writing team of Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy the material transcends cliché and becomes something real.
“Thank you December for your cold grey air/lakes are frozen, trees are bare./I once loved her of that I am proud/just no room for me up on that cloud” Blue Rodeo “Up On That Cloud”, Are You Ready 2005
Lines like that used to describe the vulnerability of an unrequited love, when you know you have no hope in hell of ever having it reciprocated, are the perfect antidote to the usual she don’t know I exist moaning that passes for emotion. I don’t normally associate song lyrics with poetry; most lyricists are too intent on reproducing a formula, but the imagery utilized by Keelor and Cuddy is equal to that of any poets.
Of course lyrics alone don’t make for interesting music. On Are You Ready once again shows that they are equally as comfortable with rocking out, “Can’t Help Wondering Why”, as they are with introspective ballads “Phaedra’s Meadow” This song is also an example of their willingness to step outside the type of music that people normally associate with them in an attempt to find the means to express the emotion contained in the song.
In most other bands if they all of a sudden throw a tin whistle and Uilleann Pipes into a song it would sound like they were cashing in on the whole Riverdance/Celtic thing. But listen to the lyrics and feel the mood they create, and you realize that nothing is more appropriate than the haunting sounds of those instruments for these songs.
Blue Rodeo is one of those bands you can always count on for producing intelligent and thoughtful music that avoids the pitfalls of cheap sentimentality and songs about pick-up trucks. But consistency in their case does not mean stagnation, and they continue to grow and both musically and lyrically. Are You Ready is another step in the really interesting journey that is Blue Rodeo. If you’ve never heard their music you’re in for a pleasant treat, for the long time fan there’s some pleasant surprises as well reassurance that they are still one of the most consistent bands on the market today.