Q&A With Cody Canada of Cross Canadian Ragweed
Oklahoma-based Cross Canadian Ragweed, which stops by the Grizzly Rose on Friday, January 4 (see the appropriate Now Hear This item for more details), is an anomaly: a big-selling country band that can't get played on country radio because its music supposedly isn't country enough. CCR's frontman, Cody Canada, takes on that topic and more in the wide-ranging and decidedly frank interview below.
Canada, who teams with guitarist Grady Cross, Randy Ragsdale and Jeremy Plato in the band, starts of the conversation by talking about the four-piece's assorted country and rock influences, as well as an early gig marked by a war among fans of these disparate genres, with the players caught in the middle. Afterward, he discusses the outfit's unexpected debut at the Grand Old Opry, shortly before Opry regular Porter Wagoner breathed his last; the true story behind "Record Exec," a song on the fine new album Mission California, complete with the naming of names (the man who inspired the tune is legendary Nashville producer and executive Tony Brown); the act's place in the so-called Red Dirt scene, which he traces back to another talented Oklahoman, Woody Guthrie; and the question of whether or not he's had his fill of the hard-partying lifestyle that's been part and parcel of Cross Canadian Ragweed since it was founded during the first half of the '90s.
Fortunately for the barkeeps of America, the answer to that last question is "no."
Westword (Michael Roberts): When you guys first started playing together, did you ever think figuring out what category your music fits into would be that big of a deal?
Cody Canada: No, not really. We never even thought about it. The original stuff we were recording and writing, we were influenced by everything from Willie Nelson to the Who. We never even thought about putting it into a category until we signed a record deal and they were trying to figure out where to put it on the shelves. And still, we always say we're just a country-influenced rock band.
WW: Apparently there aren't as many country-influenced rock bands as there once were, because that shelf space has been taken up by other things.
CC: Yeah, it's definitely not the days of Marshall Tucker anymore.
WW: In the beginning, did you play a lot of covers as well as originals?
CC: We played more covers at first.
WW: What was the mix?
CC: We did a lot of Tucker, a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd, a lot of Merle Haggard. Ian Moore was really hot at the time. We did a lot of his stuff. A lot of Todd Snider. And of course, anybody from our era, when we were nine-years old, we heard Guitar Town for the first time and it blew our doors off - so we did a lot of Steve Earle.
WW: When you switched gears during the set, was the audience able to follow you from more rock-oriented songs to more country-oriented songs? Or did that take some adjustment?
CC: Most of the places we played got it, because they thought it was cool. It was a good mixup. But there were some gigs that we kind of feared for our lives at times.
WW: Do you remember any one in particular?
CC: There was a place in Watonga, Oklahoma, called the Red Barn. This was a rough, rough joint, and it was thirteen years ago, in the first few months of the band. And we had one half of the bar yelling for Hank Williams and the other half of the bar yelling for AC/DC. I'll never forget it. So we broke out this bluegrassy version of "You Shook Me All Night Long" and then did "Move It On Over" George Thorogood-style, and that satisfied him. We thought we weren't going to walk out of there. And then this lady brought me a note that said, and excuse my language, but I've got to tell you exactly what it said: It said, "Play some country music or I'm going to rip your fucking ears off and send them to your mother." So we switched gears and did some Hag after that.
WW: Even so, it seems like most people are able to deal with a band playing a variety of music better than record executives are.
CC: Yeah, that's for sure.
WW: Once you got to the record-label stage, what formats of radio station did Universal South try to work your music to? And which ones were the most receptive?
CC: Texas and Oklahoma were always good to us, because that's our home. Of course, the rock stations wouldn't touch it because it was too country for rock stations. Outside of our region, it was too rock and roll for country stations, or it was too serious of a matter - the lyrics might have been too serious. Or, in my opinion, too honest. Nobody wanted to hear it. In my opinion, no one's heard sad, depressing, country-oriented music in a long time. But, man, it's still out there. I don't know, we had a hard time, and we still have a hard time, getting radio play. And after a while, I just told the guys, "I don't even care anymore." We have people who want to come out and hear us. We make our living from playing live. So if we get radio, we appreciate it, and we'll help those people out if they're helping us out. But we're not going to do the kiss-ass game just to get something played on the radio. We've had a few rock stations that picked us up. We had the Dimebag Darrell song ["Dimebag," from the 2005 album Garage], and we had a few rock stations pick that up. And there's a classic-rock station in Oklahoma City that plays us, and it just tickles us pink that we get played on classic rock.
WW: With the last couple of albums in particular debuting so high up on the country charts, wouldn't you think it would send a message to country programmers that there are a lot of country listeners out there who like this kind of music?
CC: You'd think. We have a really strong following. I heard the first week's sales for everybody this past October, when we released California, and Brooks and Dunn were number one, and they sold 62,000 the first week - and we sold, like, 24,000, I think. And I thought, well, man, in the big scheme of things, we're not really that far behind them. We were number six and they were number one. But you kind of figure, if something like that happens, you'd think country radio might say, "Hey, maybe we should give these guys a shot again." I don't really know, but I think once again, it's back to the subject matter. The new single ("I Believe You") talks about everything from gays and geeks and ghosts to just every color under the sun - just be good to one another. And I don't know if it's just forbidden territory or what. And another thing: It's not that country. We don't ever have that formula. You know, two verses, a chorus, a bridge and then a chorus and you're out in three minutes. There are some songs we have that are three minutes long, but I've got a lot more to say. I think when you boil it all down, it doesn't fit. But there's a lot of people out there that like it, you know.
WW: You mentioned how much you tour. Is that something you would have done anyhow? Or was that a strategy you came up with because you weren't getting radio airplay, and you thought that would be the only way people could hear your music?
CC: We would have done it anyway. We were doing it. Before the record company even batted an eye toward us, we were doing 200 dates a year. And once the record label signed us up, we started doing 260 gigs. A lot of people ask, "Are you out supporting this record?" No, we're out supporting ourselves. Just because we have a new record doesn't mean we're working any harder. We're always out here. We did a live record last year, and it was one of our biggest years in six or seven years. And you don't really need to support a live record. If you're playing live, people get their fill of it right there.
WW: Among the places you played not that long ago was the Grand Old Opry. How meaningful was that for you.
CC: We always talked about it, and we've all been there - all of us have been there individually, as kids. And going back and forth to Nashville to gigs out there, we always stop by. Seeing buddies of ours play up there. But we never really thought it would happen, so we never pursued it. And that week, we were playing a barbecue cook-off in Nashville, and two days before the gig, our management called and said, "Hey, do you want to play the Opry?" And we were like, "That's the stupidest question you ever asked us. You know we want to play the Opry." And our friend, Dierks Bentley came up there. We called him, and we said, "Hey, man, are you in town? We're playing the Opry tonight." And he didn't know it - and he's usually pretty plugged into that town. And I said, "Man, I'd really appreciate it if you came up and did it with us. We're going to do one of our songs from the new record and then we're going to do a Merle Haggard song, just to say we did it." And I think he was more excited than we were. It was cool to say we did it, and we might not ever do it again - but we did it one time. Met Porter Wagoner two weeks before he died - met him and stood right there on that circle with one of our best friends, Dierks, and he sang the Merle Haggard song with us. I'd have to say that's probably the highlight of '07 for me.
WW: Had Dierks ever played the Opry before?
CC: He'd played it several times, and he's a member. And when I called him, I didn't know he was in town. He said, "This is a really big deal for you guys. You don't really act that excited." And I said, "We're pretty excited. But we're more excited about the gig tonight" - the actual gig we'd had booked for months. That's where all the fun is. When you get up and play two songs at the Opry without our equipment, we were kind of nervous. But it was awesome seeing him taking pictures of all of us, just being giddy. That really made my experience.
WW: We were talking about the subject matter of songs on the new album, and you kick off the CD with "Record Exec," which is a pretty angry song. And yet you guys are on a major label. Did those experiences that you talk about happen earlier in your career?
CC: It happened back in '05.
WW: That's not that long ago. What happened?
CC: One of the guys - he's not there anymore. The president and the vice president have been replaced over the past year. This guy had done so many records for so many awesome artists that we believed in, and we invited him down to Austin to co-produce [Garage]. We thought, all we ever do is tell these people "no," because they always want to change us. So I thought, let's invite him down and see if he has some of the magic he had in the '70s and '80s - have him produce with our producer and us and see what happens.
WW: Who were some of the artists he'd worked with in the past that you particularly admire?
CC: Steve Earle, especially. And George Strait - I love his stuff. His name is Tony Brown; it's not like I need to hide it or anything, because he knows. He worked with Lyle Lovett and Vince Gill and all kinds of people that we believe in. He played piano for Elvis, so we thought, let's give it a shot. So he came down, and he was there for two days, and he said, "Man, I think I'm going to go home, because you guys have got this under control. You don't need me." And I thought, "That's a compliment." And he said, "When you get done, send me some rough mixes." So we sent him the song "This Time Around," because he told us, "I think this is a country hit." But then he said, "But." We knew that was coming. He said, "Let me work with it a little bit." And I said, "No." But my wife, who's our manager, said, "Let him do it. Let him make the mistake." And I was like, "It's going to cost us money, it's going to cost them money, it's going to waste time. Let's just say 'no' and move on." But she said, "Let them learn." So we said, "Okay, do what you want to do." And when we got the mix back, he'd taken out everything but my vocal. He replaced all the band: Jeremy our bass player's harmony, a new drummer, fiddle player, steel player. And it sounded like the same old boring crap that's on country radio these days. And I called him back and said, "Hey, I got the mix." And he said, "What did you think?" And I said, "It sucks." And he said, "Are you serious?" And I said, "Yeah, I'm dead serious. I know exactly what you did. I just want you to tell me." He said, "Well, I added some piano." And I said, "I'm not stupid. I've been in this band for ten, twelve years. That's not me playing guitar, that's not Randy playing drums." And he said, "Well, you busted me." And I said, "There ain't no bustin' about it. It's obvious."
WW: He really thought you might not notice that the guys you'd played with for a decade weren't on the mix he sent you?
CC: That's the impression I was under. And he said, "What do you want to do?" And I said, "I don't know how this business really works. But if you release this song, it's going to be bad news. We can't leave you guys. But we don't have the option of leaving you. We have to stay until you're tired of us if you shut the doors." But I said, "We ain't going to do a thing for you again. And you're going to damage our fans. They're going to think that we sold out or whatever." And he said, "Well, I promise you I won't release it. It's done. I'll trash it." And then he called me back about an hour later and said, "I want to thank you for telling me 'no.' Nobody's told me 'no' in thirty years."
WW: How heated did the conversation get?
CC: It never did get really heated. I'm not going to say anything more brash than Steve Earle ever told him back in the '80s. But I was just honest with him. I didn't bash him. The one thing I did say was, "To me, if I'm a photographer and I want to get a family portrait of you with your wife and kids, but then I take out your wife and kids, because they're not pretty enough, and replace them with somebody else, that's kind of the same thing you did. It's a slap in the face to us." And he apologized and said, "Can I ask you one thing? Can we take the harmonica out?" And I said, "Take it out." We could have saved twelve grand right there. That's all he had to say. The very last part of the conversation was him saying, "It's not very country, with that harmonica in there." And I said, "I guess it's not. I guess Willie Nelson was wrong over the last thirty or forty years." And he said, "Well, we're probably going to get a pretty good song out of this." And I said, "Yeah, well, I don't know if it's going to be good or not, but we are getting a song out of it." I haven't talked to him since we released the record, because after he left Universal South, he kind of disappeared. I haven't seen him. But word on the street is, he got a pretty good cackle out of it.
WW: So from word of mouth, he wasn't that upset about "Record Exec"?
CC: No, and Tony was pretty good about always putting us under pressure to make us do better. That always pissed me off, because it was nerve-racking. I about had a nervous breakdown on that record, because they were pressuring us so much about the writing. I'm like, I'm going to write what I'm going to write. You guys signed us for what we are, and if you don't like it, then don't work with us anymore. But I know in the very end, he was just pressuring me to make me do better.
WW: Did you turn in the "Record Exec" song before he left? Or was he already gone?
CC: No, he was already gone. We went into the studio about the time that transition happened. But you know, I've always respected Tony. That was just one little disagreement, and of course, there were a lot of people in Nashville thought we hated him. One night, Tony was at the bar before we wrote "Record Exec," and we played "This Time Around," the song he took a meat cleaver to, and I said, "This is the new single, and this is the way it's supposed to sound." And he left - and then he called me the next day and said, "Man, I thought you were going to jump off the stage and punch me." And I was like, "Man, I'd never punch you. That's pretty unprofessional, man. We got our beef out of the way." And after that, it was all cool. Country Weekly, the only review they've ever written of us, they called us hypocrites for being on a Nashville label and writing a song called "Record Exec."
WW: It sounds like they didn't know the whole story.
CC: No, they didn't. They just got the record in the mail and listened to the first three singles and gave us a two star review.
WW: Another song that really jumped out at me is "In Oklahoma," and especially the mention of Woody Guthrie. Is he someone who you'd like to emulate? Or is he someone you just take home-state pride in?
CC: It's that last one. I didn't really get into Woody Guthrie until I moved up to Stillwater. Because when I moved up to Stillwater, I was into Pearl Jam and Nirvana. We're from the same hometown as Garth Brooks, and the first couple of his records, I was twelve, thirteen years old and thought Garth Brooks was the best thing that ever happened. And then it changed. It went to something different that I didn't like - and then Eddie Vedder walked into my ears, and that was a completely different thing. So I was kind of stuck and lost when I moved up to Stillwater, and I started meeting all these guys from, like, the Red Dirt Rangers and the Great Divide and Jason Boland and all those guys. And it really got down to, it's just music - it's not that complicated. It's just, let's sit down and write songs for the good of the world, or let's write songs about angry subjects. Instead of taking it out on somebody, write a song about it. Or what's your view on politics? Or, you know, just everything. And I started realizing that people in Oklahoma really looked up to Woody Guthrie, and then I got about waist-deep in it, and that changed a lot for me, writing-wise. And, you know, it just happened to be part of the history for that song. I wanted to write a historical song about Oklahoma, and there's about six or seven verses in there. We cut it down because it got a little preachy.
WW: Well, Woody Guthrie's songs always did have a strong social point of view - and I suppose that might seem preachy to some people. Did you want to balance that social aspect in a way that it didn't seem too heavy-handed?
CC: Yeah, that, and you know, the song's sort of the same groove all the way through it. I think if you put more than four or five verses in there, it'd get kind of old. And we jumped several decades. We wrote about the discovery of Oklahoma, and then we wrote about the Dust Bowl era, and the one that was personal to me was the oil boom, because that was my era. And I thought, that's probably good. We had a verse about the bombing, because we were close to twenty years old when that happened. But it seemed a little too much to me. Those people still aren't over that up there. The Indians, the oil boom and Woody Guthrie are long enough ago.
WW: You mentioned the Red Dirt scene, and there was a New York Times article that came out not long ago that basically made it seem like you guys invented it - and clearly that's not true.
CC: Oh, no. And that's one thing that comes up a lot - that we're the ones leading the charge. We always say we're not leading the charge. Maybe we're the most popular out of the current movement of it, but we owe everything to, like, the Great Divide and the Red Dirt Rangers and Jimmy LaFave and Woody Guthrie. But to go back to Woody Guthrie, the stuff we're doing isn't all that different from what he was doing. We just have electric instruments and different topics.
WW: One of the topics that comes up on the album in the song "Walls to Climb." A couple of lines read, "I came here to avoid the party/The party's kind of getting old." You guys have a reputation as hard partiers. Is the party getting old? Or is it only getting old on certain days?
CC: It was just that particular day (laughs). We'd been up at the Steamboat Music Festival [known as MusicFest, staged annually in Steamboat Springs]. That's a seven-day-straight party. Night and day. Probably the only sober day you actually have is the day your gig is, and the rest of the time you're watching your buddies play and you're sitting in on jam sessions. We had a day off in Amarillo, and the whole town was iced over, and the guys had called the owner of a little burger joint/bar we used to play there, and he said, "Yeah, I'll open up if you want to come out and get drunk." And I told the guys, "I really don't want to do it. I just want to lock myself in a room and write a song." The last thing I wanted to do was go to a bar and get drunk.
WW: But the other five or six days of partying before that was fun?
CC: Yeah - and the next day, we had a gig, and we were right back in the saddle again.
WW: Having been on the road for ten years, is it just as much fun to play a gig and tie one on afterward? Or has it changed over time?
CC: Man, it's still the same. It's still just as fun as it was. We always talk about this. We got the band together in May of '94, and we figured the same old jokes would be old and stupid. We figured it would be dry, and there'd be no new topics. But it's a different day every day, and it's just as fun at night. The gigs are just as fun, because there are twenty songs or more in a set every night, and there's probably fifteen of them that are different each night. It's always fresh. And we love each other. We're brothers. We've known each other since kindergarten. We got all the arguments out of the way long before the band got together, you know. Nobody was ever hound dogs. We were always one-women men. We got married early. If there's ever anything our families have to be jealous of, it's one another. It's not cheating on your wife with another woman. It's that you're hanging out with your buddies for hours.
WW: Is that why your wife's your manager? So she can get a little time in with you?
CC: Well, she's our manager because she's smarter than all of us put together. She told us from the get-go, "I just want you guys to play music. Let me worry about everything else." Who's going to argue with that? And we haven't had to worry about anything? She's been our manager for ten years now, and now she'll make decisions without even calling us, because she knows what we're going to say. I've got friends who lock themselves in rooms with songwriters, trying to write the next song, because they're worried about making a deadline and all that. But it's just not like that with us. We let her do the business and let us make the music.