By Caleb Haley
For nearly two decades, Cody Canada has been a driving force in the musical sound blowing out of Oklahoma, like the dust bowls before it, known as Red Dirt music -- a raw combination of southern jazzy blues, folk, country, and rock 'n' roll.
For the first 16 years of his career, Canada spread his homegrown musical styling out of Stillwater with the band Cross Canadian Ragweed. Now, with that behind him, he's fronting his newest act, The Departed, alongside fellow Ragweed member Jeremy Plato and longtime friends Seth James, Steve Littleton, and Chris Doege.
The Departed are scheduled to perform Friday, May 17, at Martini Ranch in Scottsdale.
The Departed is also coated in the Red Dirt sound, which has had a lifelong influence on every band member, but Canada has matured musically in the past three years and The Departed allows him to showcase it perfectly. Their tunes are a little bit tighter, they rock a little bit harder, and their soulful sound is a little bit deeper. Which raises the question: Have we only seen the beginning of what Cody Canada has to offer?
Before they arrive in Scottsdale this Friday, we had a chance to chat with Canada about The Departed and his past, present, and future.
Would you explain the term Red Dirt to anyone who is not familiar with it?
When we started writing, that term wasn't even around. It was underground. Now every station in Texas and Oklahoma says red dirt. There's Texas music and there's the Oklahoma scene, and Red Dirt really is just the term for the Oklahoma movement of music.
It's everywhere from folk to rock. It's just better than saying Oklahoma music. [laughs] It made it classier. There's a big difference in Texas and Oklahoma music; I've always thought that the lyrics were always first with the Oklahoma scene. I felt like the most important thing to the people from Oklahoma was writing the lyrics first and making the lyrics really count and dissecting a song.
Somebody said, "What do you call this music?" and somebody else said, "Well, it's as honest as the dirt is red in Oklahoma." Then it just took on its own life after that.
Is The Departed working on any new music or projects?
We're working on new music all the time. We're always writing stuff. Right now, we're still riding this last record, but hopefully before fall, we'll be at least starting to talk about the chance of getting back in the studio.
I heard the recording process on the album Adventus came together very easily for The Departed. Is that still the case for the new stuff you're working on?
Yeah, it's pretty easy. It's because we know what we're doing with it, and you can really do whatever you want to do with it when it's yours. [We know] who has what lead and who's going to sing the song. It's really a very natural band.
I bet that makes things a lot easier for everybody.
So explain the dynamic of all the members of The Departed. Do you all interact with each other well?
Well, the thing is, we've known each other forever. Jeremy [Plato; bass/vocals] and I went to grade school together, and all through high school, and [he] and I were in Ragweed for sixteen years. I've known Seth [James; guitar/vocals] since I was a little kid because our parents grew up around each other in North Texas. Steve Littleton on keys was one of the first musicians I met almost twenty years ago when I first went to Stillwater to start chasing music. I think it was just a matter of time before we all got together.
Tell me about The Departed's first studio project, This is Indian Land [a compilation album of Red Dirt cover songs]. Why did you choose that to be your first priority with The Departed?
It was the first priority because it was unfinished business for me.
Musically, I grew up in Oklahoma. I moved up to Stillwater and met all these awesome musicians. We wanted people to know where we came from. I told all those guys years ago, "Someday I'm going to record a whole record of [cover] stuff."
Jeremy and I had all the songs picked out with Ragweed, [but] there was conflict. Nothing bad, but we couldn't really agree on a solid set of songs for that. The biggest thing was the record label, Universal, didn't want us to do it. So, we were afraid if we actually did it, it'd never see the light of day.
I wanted The Departed to hit the streets as soon as Ragweed was off. We put our act together October 24, 2010, and our first gig with The Departed was December 29. We were in the studio and we could have done an original record but I didn't want to rush it.
That was the main reason I wanted to get [This Is Indian Land] out, because we didn't have time to sit down and get extremely personal with an original record and make it perfect in our book. And I had always promised those guys that I would and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to get away with it. I think people are coming back around to it now, but I put out so much original music over the years that at first people were wondering why we were doing a cover record.
I think now that Adventus came out everybody went back and listened to the [This is Indian Land] record and they understand why we did it. I want to do it again because the songs off of that record barely scratched the surface. There are so many more tunes. I left Stillwater in '99 and there is still music being pushed out of there, and there's some we didn't do because we couldn't have a four-disk record [laughs]. We decided to concentrate on four or five original records and then talk about doing it again.
Was there a specific process for narrowing it down for the songs you picked for This is Indian Land?
It was really difficult. There were some songs that were just set in stone, which Jeremy and I had talked about for years. Then, with Steve Littleton on keys joining the band, [he was in] one of the first bands I saw in Stillwater called Medicine Show and they were awesome. They were a jam band. Steve agreed to hop on, and that was the reason we put on the song called "Any Other Way". That's his tune.
One of the hardest songs was a cover of Randy Crouch's "A Face on Mars." All I had was an old recording. We couldn't figure it out because we couldn't find the tune. Then we realized he tuned all his instruments to his fiddle and his fiddle was out of tune. Plus, the tape was a little sped up so it was really a non-existent chord. It took us a whole day to dissect and get the grooves right.
A lot of the artists on there I knew and have either drank beer or smoked pot with them. We didn't know Leon [Russell] and we didn't know J.J. [Cale] but we didn't think it'd be a complete record without throwing those dudes in there.
Can you describe the vibe between the band and the audience at one of your live shows?
It's very interactive, because there [are] three of us singing these days. Everybody is spread out and standing in front of the person they want to hear sing. We really haven't changed a lot. We have Steve on keys and James on the guitar. [Steve] is a badass guitar player, and he's not just a rhythm guitar player -- he's all of it. So it's him and I swapping lead on vocals and on guitar.
There are a lot of harmonies and there really weren't a whole lot of harmonies on Ragweed. We're not an act. We don't just get up there and do our same set every night.
We treat it just like we've always treated music and we make a different set list every night because you never know, there might be somebody who was there the night before. If you play the same set over and over it starts turning into a job. We want to make them feel comfortable and be able to sit up there and listen to music and have a good time whether you've had a bad week or you've had a good day.
How do you feel you've grown musically from Cross Canadian Ragweed to The Departed?
I think the most growth that I've experienced in the last three years is with guitar. I've always wanted to sit back and play guitar while somebody else is singing, not the whole time, but [sometimes]. I love singing and everything, but every now and then I want a break and want to be able to rip on some guitar.
So being with Seth, I've learned stuff that I never thought I could do. I've learned a lot of different chords, and different ways of approaching a song to write it. Now the writing process is all in house. There's times when we sit down and one of us will come up with an idea and we just run with it. Either it gets written right then or we will wait on it a bit.
What do you find fulfilling from performing with The Departed that you didn't get with Cross Canadian Ragweed?
It really is the same. I don't compare one as being more fun than the other because it's music. That's the one thing I feel like I was put here to do, because it's the only thing I know how to do. There were nights with Ragweed that I will never forget and then there are nights with The Departed, pretty much every night, that I'll never forget. I think musically there can be a comparison, but experience-wise it's the same, because we get to play our music and travel all over the place. With The Departed we've already been to Germany and Ireland twice and we never got to do that with Ragweed. We did go to France once and that was it.
I was a fan myself of the new album, Adventus, and it seems like it was received very well by critics and other fans. Are you happy with the response?
I'm very happy about it. I'm glad that we put the cover record out first so we could concentrate on this. If we would have put the original record out first, some of the songs wouldn't have been on there. We had time to sit down and really go over it with a microscope. There's always going to be something with a record that you don't dig, but with this album we didn't rush any of it. We cared about it. There are a lot of people who go in and just bust out a record and get out. I was very happy to see critics and fans dig it because we put so much work in to it. It was very nice to be rewarded and hear people say they liked it.
After the tour is over, what do you have planned next?
Once we get home to Texas we will have a gig and then two days off then we hit the road again. So we really don't have time off until June. We're always on the road.
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Do you see anything happening with Cross Canadian Ragweed in the future?
No. No, just because it ran its course. We started [The Departed] because Jeremy and I weren't done playing music. It's been three years now and I still keep in contact with Randy [Ragsdale; drummer for Cross Canadian Ragweed] every now and then but we just moved on.
It was fun to play those songs and we still play some of those songs every night to just mix it up. It just got pretty monotonous for a while, and I love everybody in that band and everything we got to do, but it just started getting stale.
Everybody knew it, and everybody felt it. Now, everything is brand new again. We're all so laid back. Nobody complains about anything. We have things called 'nice-offs'. Just everybody being nice to each other and everybody gets along. It feels like all the songs on the record are a little faster than they are live and that's just because everybody is settled down and has a groove now.