Listen to this track by Canadian institution and alt-country pioneers Blue Rodeo. It’s “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream”, the closing section made up of two connected songs as taken from their 1993 record Five Days In July.
Blue Rodeo are celebrated on a grand scale here in Canada, having initially built their reputation on Toronto’s Queen Street scene from their first gig in 1985 at the famous Rivoli. They became a stalwart live act from there, reaching stratospheric heights by the end of the decade and into the nineties. By the time they recorded Five Days In July, they were widely regarded as one of the biggest acts in the country, having long since distinguished themselves via the work premier-level songwriters and band principals Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor.
With that history in place, the band were still interested in progressing their sound beyond their influences as they’d always sought to do, those influences being that Cosmic American sound popularized by The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and Harvest-era Neil Young. To do so, they did what another Band once had done; they retreated to the countryside for a while.
The recordings of this song and others on the album were cut at Keelor’s farm in Southern Ontario, originally meant to be demo sessions. The rural location and the casual atmosphere produced a laid back and extremely warm result. It made sense to take the songs as they were in the short span of time in which they were recorded, and invite some outside talent to add their voices, too.
I first heard this cut in the kitchen of a shared house I was living in by 1993. It was on CBC radio, broadcast as a preview of the record that hadn’t come out yet, and before the hits “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”, “Bad Timing,” and the almost-titular “5 Days In May” would become among Blue Rodeo’s most recognized songs. On my first listen, “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream” sounded like a moonlit and sleepily-flowing stream, something between a love song and a hymn and standing as the noirish conclusion to an after-dinner session of playing together in the living room that the rest of the record suggests.
Keelor’s voice, usually the piss-and-vinegar answer to fellow vocalist Cuddy’s sugar-and-spice, sounded dreamlike and soothing. This was of course augmented by guest vocalist Sarah McLachlan, a shining star in her own right by 1993, who adds an almost operatic power to the proceedings. Another stand-out for me was folk-blues artist and guest Colin Linden’s slide guitar, a langourous texture slow dancing with the folky acoustic finger picking of a second guitar to the keening and ghostly pedal steel interjections from player Kim DeChamps.
After a gentle transition of wind chimes, rainstick, and McLachlan’s soaringly ecstatic and wordless vocal, the “Tell Me Your Dream” section is built almost purely from restful country harmonies that seem to shimmer with contentment. The aforementioned McLachlan gives it her all here in particular, as unadorned as she’d ever come across on any of her own records, making me hope that she’d finally cut a country record (I’m still waiting!). This part of the song is less the seduction of the “Know Where You Go” section and more the call to intimacy that comes with more advanced phases of love. It carries a spiritual element more so than a strictly erotic one; tell me the things that you hide away – your pain, your pleasure, your sorrow. It becomes a song about accepting the offer of refuge and feeling safe with another while never dismissing real struggles or feelings. McLachlan’s piano lines serve as an outro; a gospel-tinged and elegiac takeaway that remains like a sweet musical fragrance in the room long after the song has departed.
At the height of the New Country era of designer cowboy hats and big, slick production values by the early 1990s, it was this song, or two-fer of songs I suppose, that helped wake me up to the many ways that country music has unique potential for presenting ideas and atmospheres in a down to earth and organic way. I think too this effect was in conjunction with a counter-current in the nineties to move toward warmer musical textures regardless of musical genre. It helped show me that music can be this down to earth without also being simplistic or thematically one-dimensional. In all its restfulness and simplicity, it is full of spiritual weight and poignancy.
Blue Rodeo are an active band today, currently in celebration of their first album Outskirts released thirty (!) years ago this year, amazingly.
Take a read of this 2012 article from McLean’s magazine to learn more about their history and cultural impact as one of Canada’s biggest bands.
You can also learn more about them at bluerodeo.com.