A lanky young man sits at a battered piano in a dark, cramped club. His hair falls in large sweaty tussles over his eyes. As he kicks his band into the immortal “Mystery Train,” he tosses back those curls while cocking his head toward the crowd, Jerry Lee Lewis-style. The setting could indeed be Memphis or New Orleans in 1959, but this is Toronto in 2013 where a new generation has picked up rock and roll’s torch. Not in any kind of fashion sense, mind you, but in a spiritual sense, chasing the rhythm with pure heart and soul.
Devin Cuddy has always made music his way, and some might argue, the hard way. As the son of one of Canada’s most beloved singer/songwriters, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, country rock has been the soundtrack to Devin’s entire life—he was born the same week Blue Rodeo began recording its 1987 debut album, Outskirts. But from the moment Devin was drawn to playing music, he was determined to get as close as possible to the sources of all the sounds he loved, whether they were made by rock and roll’s founding fathers, the Grand Ole Opry’s honky tonk heroes, or Jelly Roll Morton and the kings of jazz.
Mastering those styles was only taking things halfway, though. The most important lesson Devin learned from his dad was that the way a musician truly develops their craft is in front of audiences. From his home base at the Cameron House, the Queen Street West club that has long been the epicenter of Toronto’s roots rock scene, Cuddy has done just that on almost a nightly basis. At the same time, he has helped cultivate a growing contingent of like-minded young musicians to slowly but consistently spread the word coast to coast.
After a significant period of writing original songs and honing them with a dynamic band featuring guitarist Nichol Robertson—Canada’s answer to every Nashville god of twang— Zack Sutton on Drums, and Devon Richardson on Bass. Devin and company recorded Volume One in 2012 with engineer Tim Vesely, formerly of the Rheostatics. Rough-hewn and lively, the album reflects Cuddy’s musical dexterity, and unique lyrical approach.
Songs such as “She Ain’t Crying Over Me,” “I Got A Girl,” and “Signal Hill” are examples of Cuddy’s timeless approach, while on songs like “Afghanistan” and “My Son’s A Queer,” he shows no fear in tackling contemporary issues. The two worlds probably blend most seamlessly on “Sidewalk In The South,” a personal account of hanging out in Oxford, Mississippi, which pays musical homage to the New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary.” The track is further proof that while Cuddy is as no-nonsense a performer as they come, he is by no means a traditionalist.
“I came upon those influences as a teenager, just from picking through my father’s CD collection and going out from there to related artists,” Devin said in a 2012 CBC interview. “Then in college I found something about country music that I probably still can’t really describe, but that really calls to me and affects me. I think it’s probably the storytelling and the simplicity, yet deeper meanings.”
No one can accuse Cuddy of not paying his dues over the past several years, and while his father has taken great pride in Devin’s accomplishments, he has also shown tremendous respect in keeping a safe distance away. However, the time is now at hand for Devin to take the next step in pursuing the large audience he deserves, and he has earned the honour of being the special guest on Blue Rodeo’s 2014 cross-Canada tour. Not only will Devin perform an opening set, he will also play after-show club gigs in almost each city, showcasing his barrelhouse style in its natural environment.
“Even as I carve my own path, there are some things I can’t say no to,” Cuddy says, “specifically doing things with Blue Rodeo. Not only is that a great opportunity for me, but it’s family and it means a lot to me and my father as well. I’ve come to embrace that for sure.
As 2014 unfolds—with a new album due at some point—more and more people are sure to acknowledge Devin Cuddy’s unique talent, and agree that the future of Canadian music is in good hands.