Interview: Bazil Donovan

(December 2018) The year was 1984 and Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor and Bob Wiseman decided to put together a band and call it Blue Rodeo. Joined by bassist Bazil Donovan and Cleave Anderson on the drums, they began gigging around Toronto. Both Wiseman and Anderson eventually left the band, but Bazil stayed the course and 35 years later he’s still providing the solid, yet subtle, bass on all those massive Cuddy/Keelor hits. With a huge fan base, Blue Rodeo draws from far away and packs every room they play. Over the years, the band has taken a hiatus from time to time, and Bazil has taken advantage of the free time by performing and recording with countless artists, from Levon Helm to the children of Merle Haggard. He’s also the bassist in Jim Cuddy’s solo project and a regular sit in at the Cameron House on Queen St. A long way from their debut release “Outskirts” and the massive 1987 hit “Try” Blue Rodeo look back at a career spanning decades, and the release of some of Canada’s most iconic songs. It was great to chat with Bazil again and after the interview he told me, before BR, he used to play the Grand Hotel on George St….

Mb: Bazil Donovan hotline!
Bazil: (laughs) Michael!? Sorry I’m a little late.
Mb: No worries. Great to hear from you. I have to tell you something. Back in 1991, our first big interview at the Wire was Blue Rodeo and the interview was with you! You were playing the Admiral Inn in Lindsay.
Bazil: Oh really? 1991. Wow and here we are.
Mb: Would you have ever thought…
Bazil: It’s amazing. How many years is that? 27 years.
Mb: And Blue Rodeo is in their 35th year!
Bazil: This is our 35th year. I never would have believed I’d be in a band for 35 years. If you’d have told me at the start of it, it was going to last 35 years I would have laughed at you.
Mb: And what did your family think at the time, when you went off to join a rock band.
Bazil: They thought I was crazy. They thought, like most families do, it would be over in a little while and I’d be getting a real job. (laughs) I guess I proved them wrong. That’s one good thing.
Mb: I imagine there’s lots of good things about being in Blue Rodeo…
Bazil: Ya, there’s a lot of good things. But that was one of the best things. Being able to say to all those family members, my cousins and uncles and… It’s kinda of sad, ‘cause I’d see them getting laid off and losing their jobs. I’d be “Well, I still got one.” (laughs) “And you told me I’d be doing the crazy thing!” Everyone told me I’d better have something to fall back on. My friend Terry Wilkins says he’s going to teach his son guitar cause he needs something to fall back on. (laughs)
Mb: So we have a common friend in Karl Lawson, and he says you can be found playing the Cameron House on Queen?
Bazil: I played the Cameron last night.
Mb: You want to be playing all the time?
Bazil: It’s what I do. I love playing music and I have a lot of friends who are musicians and they don’t all have a Blue Rodeo, that keeps going, right? I do have this band called Hey Stella which is some very old dear friends of mine, and we’ve been together for 22 years. We just play around town, and we play because we love playing music. We play lots of covers and lots of originals, but it’s not a band that is trying to make it. We play because we love the music. It feels good to get out and play different material. If I only played Blue Rodeo and Jim Cuddy songs, it would be kinda boring, you know? I like the songs, but I also like doing other things.
Mb: And you’ve jumped on a lot of different artist’s records…
Bazil: I did a lot of recording over the years. My very good buddy, Justin Rutledge, I played on all of his records up until two records ago. I played with Oh Susanna on 4 of her records, my friend Jay Harris from Kingston, I played on two of his records and numerous others. Jill Barber, I played on her second record… Stephen Fearing, I played on one of his records.. Ya over the years, there’s a lot.
Mb: Good to keep the creative flowing…
Bazil: And you meet different musicians. I did a record with Levon Helm at the Bath House in Kingston with Colin Linden, Richard Bell, Levon Helm, myself and Ronnie Hawkins! How cool is that? Actually, in the summer, Karl took us out to the farm. Ronnie had a final big party out at the farm, and that afternoon I backed up Kris Kristofferson! That to me is… I was on stage playing with somebody who I consider a legend. I grew up covering his songs in bars!
Mb: Did you tell your uncle?
Bazil: (laughs) Exactly. I wish he was still alive because he’d be pinching me, ‘cause he loved Kris Kristofferson. That guy’s the best songwriter that ever lived, and there I was playing with him out at the Hawk’s farm. It was one of those moments where you go “Is this really happening?”… Last November I get this call from a guy and he says “I’m in Thunder Bay and I need a bass player tonight. Are you available?” “Ah, I live a long way from Thunder Bay.” He goes “Can you drive over? How far is it?” I’m like “I can’t drive, it’s a twenty hour drive!” “Oh jeez, I didn’t think it was that far!” So, I keep talking to the guy, saying I can’t do it, it’s my girlfriend’s birthday tomorrow and …
Mb: Did he know who you were?
Bazil: He just knew my name was Bazil and I didn’t know who he was until he said, “We heard you’re familiar with Merle Haggard music.” And I said “Ya, I love Merle Haggard. I’m a big fan and I know all his stuff.” And he said “Well, that’s what we play, Merle Haggard.” I said, “I do know the stuff, but I’m not available.” He says, “We’ve got three more dates out west in Calgary and Edmonton, can you do those?” Finally I said, “No I can’t do any of them. And who is this by the way.” And he says, “My name is Noel, Noel Haggard.” Turns out it was Ben and Noel Haggard, the two sons. So I ended up flying out to Calgary and doing three shows with Merle Haggard’s band and his two sons.
Mb: At first, you’re thinking, it’s a tribute band…
Bazil: Ya, I didn’t know who it was.. and they look so much like him. It was kinda freaky. My father was a massive Merle Haggard fan, and so was I. Here I was playing these songs that I grew up listening to on record. Now I’m on stage with his two sons who just lost their dad, not that long ago. They’d tell stories every night. I remember Ben said “The week that Dad died, he called me into the room and said ‘Son take my band and go out and work. You’d be a fool not to go out and work.” It was pretty sweet… Ya, I do tons of stuff. If someone calls… I’m good to go. Though I had to tell my wife “I know it’s your birthday, but I got to go!” I made up for it later with a nice dinner… and some jewelry. (laughs)
Mb: So how many dates is Blue Rodeo doing this year? 15-20…?
Bazil: More than that. Ya, we’ve got 6 shows in February…
Mb: Do you guys have gambling debts or something?
Bazil: (laughs) Well, we’ve got family like you would not believe. (laughs) My wife…
Mb: The jewelry…
Bazil: She goes to Mexico when I go on the road. “OK!” The thing is, the more you have access to…. we have a beautiful cottage in Prince Edward County…
Mb: You’ve got bills to pay.
Bazil: And I have a 3 year old daughter now…. and I’m 63. I love her to pieces. Everything about it is positive, but I also have her future to consider so, I have to work! Simple as that. It’s given me lots, but I certainly don’t have the luxury of sitting at home doing nothing. But that’s ok, cause I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. There’s something about being busy and active that’s good for the soul, you know? And, musicians don’t retire. I’ve never met one that said “I don’t want play any more.” It’s always “I can’t play anymore.” That’s the sad part. “My arthritis is so bad I can’t hold the bass..” whatever.. “My shoulder’s so weak I can’t strap on my guitar anymore.” That’s when you see them say they have to pack it in. And they do it with a heavy heart. It’s one of the most fun things I get to do. I mean, when I’m on stage it’s the only time I don’t feel all the other troubles of the world. It’s the only time I feel at peace and think “Ya, this is exactly where I want to be.”

Blue Rodeo performs Friday, December 28 at the Peterborough Memorial Centre

Photo: Dustin Rabin