Cuff the Duke stay in the ring

Despite line-up and label changes, Toronto alt-country band Cuff the Duke are still as strong as pedal steel.

When it comes to writing song lyrics, Wayne Petti likes to keep things at a distance. "I don't often get too personal in music," the Cuff the Duke singer admits over the phone from Toronto. "Usually I try to write stuff we all can relate to." A perfunctory appraisal of the Cuff the Duke catalogue would show him to be right. A song like "Belgium or Peru"---off the band's self-titled second album---is certainly heartfelt, but eschews strong, specific images for the sake of rhyming, structure and those gloriously brassy Cuff the Duke guitar explosions.

But after Petti's grandmother passed away while the band was on tour last year, he began writing songs for Cuff's fourth album, Way Down Here, that deal directly with her life and memory. "Like the Morning" ruminates on his grandmother's struggle with arthritis and her strong Catholic faith. "Like the morning, you'll rise again," Petti sings quietly, and the band surges behind him, led by a moaning pedal steel.

"The songs were a little bit stream-of-consciousness, but they had a lot of meaning," Petti says. "My grandmother, she was a widow for a long time. She was a strong woman and I always admired her. She was quite brittle with arthritis at the end, but when I was growing up, she was a total go-getter. It's nice when you're a songwriter and you can deal with that stuff sometimes."

Way Down Here marks another big change in the band's life: they've released it under their own imprint, Noble Recording Co., after former label Hardwood Records shut down operations for the time being. (It's owned and operated by former tourmate Hayden.) The band managed to secure distribution for the record in the United States and Europe, based more or less on word of mouth. Petti says all this is flattering, but also a little intense.

"It's a lot of work and financial commitment," he says. "It certainly makes you appreciate anyone who's put out a record in the past. It's really liberating but scary too---you're steering the ship fully now."

For a musician whose band has endured a few lineup changes and dabbled in a number of styles, Petti is confident about Cuff the Duke's future. When the band's not releasing its own albums, they have developed a reputation as a solid backing band, built on their shows with Hayden over the past year and recently with Christina Martin. (Cuff the Duke's guitarist happens to be Halifax music dynamo Dale Murray, who produced Martin's album Two Hearts.) Petti says the experiences have made him a better musician.

"Christina is really smart and works really hard to reach as many people as possible," Petti says. "We like that we have fans who have grown with us, but it's always nice to be a new discovery for people. It keeps us interested too." –Alison Lang

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