Dukes off the cuff

Wayne Petti of Cuff the Duke tells the Journal why the band’s new breed of country music goes beyond hats and fiddles

Holding true to the summer festival vibe, Oshawa outfit Cuff the Duke aim for uncomplication with their simple straight up alternative country album.
Holding true to the summer festival vibe, Oshawa outfit Cuff the Duke aim for uncomplication with their simple straight up alternative country album.

In many ways ‘alternative country’ is a misnomer. Wayne Petti from Cuff the Duke understands this, especially in relation to what is offered by the mainstream. So much new country is just “80s music with a country hat and a fiddle,” Petti told me over the phone.

Alt-country has an authenticity that Taylor Swift and other new country artists often lack. Cuff the Duke, who has recently been touring with Blue Rodeo and who will be playing in Kingston at the Wolfe Island Music Festival on Aug 6, exemplifies a new breed of country.

Their influences include Hank Williams-style classics, rock like Neil Young and modern pop rock like Sloan. The end result is a form of country with an indie rock aesthetic.

Their latest album is entitled and was produced by Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo. It was recorded at Keelor’s farm in rural Ontario and has a down home feel that is appropriate to the setting. According to Petti, the band consciously chose to use traditional 8-track recording technology, achieving a rougher sound reminiscent of early CCR.

“It’s not polished but less raucous [than earlier albums]”, Petti said. There is maturity to the sound and the lyrics, but also what he describes as a chilled-out vibe that comes from being “bundled up in a farmhouse”.

Cuff the Duke’s songwriting often expresses a world-weariness beyond the band members’ years. As Petti put it, “you only get one kick at the can, so to speak.” The songs reflect a fleeting moment in time, as if the band were going down a road that Petti describes as full of twists and turns and smooth paved sections.

The new album has a mellowness that befits maturing songwriters and a band coming into its own. Aging and mortality seem to be prevalent themes. In fact, the song “Like the Morning” was written for Petti’s grandmother who passed away before the band began recording the album.

Although there’s not a lot of direct Canadian references in their songs, Petti said he feels there is something inherently Canadian in what the band does. Their origins are in Oshawa, Ontario--a blue-collar town that informs their style.

That working class milieu spawned roots music about “heartbreak and regrets about choices you’ve made,” Petti said. It’s a potent mixture of local Canadian and universal themes.

Although the band’s name remains something of a mystery, it’s been suggested that it comes from an old hockey phrase for pulling the goalie. Don Cherry, who Petti reminisced about meeting during the Stanley Cup finals this past spring and said, “I think I know what your band name means, but hey, it’s a damn good band name!” The name isn’t blatant Canadiana but does hint at something decidedly Canadian, just like the music, which isn’t blatant honky-tonk but does hint at something decidedly country.

Anyway, if it’s good enough for Grapes, how can the rest of us not like it?

According to Petti, “the world is such a complicated place, this is a simple straight up record.” Cuff the Duke manages to wed tradition with contemporary sound, all within Petti’s ambition to “express fundamental emotions in a simple way.”

Cuff the Duke play the Wolfe Island Music Festival Aug 6. click here for details.

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