Playwright, Charlie Rhindress couldn’t have said it better. MacNeil’s songs are about conversations, friends getting together, community roots, believing in dreams, both good and bad times, working people, taking risks, home and paying tribute to a loving family – things that ring true for everybody.
“MacNeil’s artistry lies in the way she can turn the events of her life into something with which many people can identify,” said Rhindress. “(What’s) remarkable is that she can touch on the specific, but it becomes universal.”
It’s not very often an entertainer can sit in an audience and see herself perform. Rita MacNeil had that opportunity on an August night in 2000. On that summer evening she attended the Live Bait Theatre in Sackville, N.B., for a performance of Flying On Her Own. It told MacNeil’s life story through her songs. And while she enjoyed the attention the production gave her career, she said, “I didn’t think the story was earth-shattering, just something you could pretty well put anyone into. It was about one person, but so many of us could be there.”
The truth is not many could weather what she did and achieve what she has. On A Personal Note, her book written with Anne Simpson, detailed most of her struggle to succeed as a singer in spite of personal difficulties. Rita grew up in Big Pond, Cape Breton with three brothers and four sisters.
Often chaotic, her youth included the physical and psychological trauma of surgery for a cleft palate, a first love affair that left her with a child and a broken heart, a marriage breakdown and numerous frustrating attempts to kick-start a musical career.
Rita’s shyness, even during childhood singing lessons when “the teacher did most of the singing,” thwarted her first attempts to express herself musically, so she only sang to her mother in the kitchen. As a teen, however, Rita loved to listen to music – Celtic, country, folk, rhythm and blues and rock – on the radio. Her mother Renee “was a great encouragement,” Rita said. “She believed in the singing and wanted me to be able to perform, one day, because she knew that’s what I loved.” Renee MacNeil did not live to see her daughter’s success, but Rita’s song Reason To Believe acknowledges the gift.
After a number of unsuccessful attempts to find work in the music business, Rita MacNeil found inspiration in the women’s movement. In 1971, she wrote about women having a voice and called it Need For Restoration; the next year she wrote a song protesting a beauty pageant, called Born A Woman, which became the title of her first album, recorded in 1974. Picked up by Boot Records, BORN A WOMAN launched MacNeil into the folk music circuit – from the Riverboat and Mariposa to Northern Lights (in Sudbury) and the Kootenays Folk Festival in B.C. Despite a troublesome marriage, having to care for her two children and a disappointing career thus far, “whenever I sang I felt strong,” she wrote. “Music…was really the best medicine for me.”
Back in Cape Breton in 1979, she found work and more inspiration to write. The songs came fast and furious – Black Rock, Troubadours, My Island, Brown Grass and Old Man (for her father) and Working Man (about the coal miners of Cape Breton).
Suddenly, people paid attention to her work. There were press interviews, radio appearances and calls for concert appearances. She even got an invitation to sing Working Man with the Men of the Deeps, an all-male choir of miners that had been singing since 1967; it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. “The song became like an anthem when the men sang with me,” she wrote.
Flushed with new successes, the MacNeil family and friends financed her second album in 1980. PART OF THE MYSTERY, while a creative success, stumbled at the start. The first 250 albums were flawed in the pressing. The family’s Big Pond Publishing and Productions Limited was operated on a shoestring and sales were conducted on consignment. Nevertheless, Rita MacNeil’s fan base grew, more media appearances resulted and the first royalty cheques rolled in.
The turning point, however, was Expo ’86 in Vancouver, where despite her normal misgivings about the gig, “I was on cloud nine when I discovered the first show was sold out, 350 people were in the audience and…the audience stayed…People wanted to listen to the music,” she said. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Sun said, “for God’s sake, you must hear Rita MacNeil. See her at Expo this month so you can talk knowledgeably when she becomes a star.” Later that year, her FLYING ON YOUR OWN album was recorded and then released in 1987. The album soon went gold and helped earn MacNeil her first Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist, at age 42.
She sang in Britain, opening for Steeleye Span. Her REASON TO BELIEVE album went platinum in 1988, the same year it was produced. She went to Australia to sing with Andre-Philippe Gagnon. In 1989, at the Juno Awards, she and the Men of the Deeps performed Working Man and brought down the house; right after, with tears in her eyes, k.d. lang came on stage to accept her Country Female Vocalist Juno and commented, “It’s tough standing up here after listening to that.”
MacNeil was on a roll. In 1990, she sold more records in Canada than Garth Brooks. In 1991 she was invited to play at Royal Albert Hall in England. There were honourary doctorates from five Canadian Universities. In 1992, she was inducted into the Order of Canada. Her television appearances broke records – her 1993 CBC TV Christmas special, One Upon A Christmas, drew 2 million viewers and her musical variety show Rita & Friends (winner of the 1996 Gemini Award) attracted 1 million viewers a week over three seasons. There were two more Junos, four Canadian Country Music Awards and seven East Coast Music Awards in the ‘90s.
A long way from the flawed pressings and shoestring budgets of the early ‘80s, Big Pond Publishing and Productions was modernized, but was still operated by Rita MacNeil’s family. In addition, another MacNeil enterprize, Rita’s Tea Room, the former school house turned into a restaurant in 1982 in Big Pond, began to take-off. From June to October visitors began arriving by the busload to enjoy a meal, buy Rita MacNeil souvenirs and sign the three-ringed binder that serves as a guest book.
In spite of the confidence so much success might have instilled, MacNeil still doubted herself. During the recording of a Christmas 2000 special, the prospect of performing a duet with Patti LaBelle, left MacNeil petrified. When promoting the songs on her MUSIC OF A THOUSAND NIGHTS album, she would periodically sing Snowbird (written by Gene MacLellan and made famous by Anne Murray) on stage. “I was terrified to do that song,” she admitted. “I said backstage, ‘I think they’re going to throw tomatoes.’”
After all these years, even Rita MacNeil found it difficult to recognize what her playwright biographer, Charlie Rhindress, saw in her. “She has a very shy personality, but is a very strong person on the inside.”
Edited from ‘Profiles From A Century Of Canadian Music’ By Alex Barris and Ted Barris (Harper Collins)