Growing up in Nova Scotia, it was impossible to get away from fiddle music, country music or the major music industry success that sometimes found its way to certain music artists every decade or so. Although I was young at the time, when Anne Murray became one of the top female artists in the world in the late 70s and early 80s, you could sense that something special was happening – her and her music were everywhere. The same thing happened to The Rankin Family in the early to mid-90s. But in the late 80s to early 90s, another music star found her voice and this one’s success was something unlike anything that ever happened in Canada before. Her name was Rita MacNeil.
A couple weeks ago I was sad to learn that Rita had died. Though I wasn’t a major fan, there was something about her that drew me to her. Perhaps it was her down-home charm, her earth mother vibe, her innocence and that great booming, strong voice. But I think the main reason was she was shy. I can identify with that because I too am a shy person and it can come off as being aloof and distant. Shy people struggle with their shyness because they constantly think of what others think of them. It’s a confidence issue. When I found out that Rita was painfully shy, it endeared her to many because she was just like them. You would think that Rita’s shyness and success in the music industry would be like oil and water. I think because she overcame this and became such a star is what also endeared her to her many fans.
In 1986, her ‘Flying On You Own’ song was everywhere in Nova Scotia. It is fair to say that her appearance at Expo 86 in Vancouver kick started her career. But it seemed like she came out of nowhere, even though she had been recording for 10 years. It would be easy to label her a one hit wonder, but Rita had 2 things going for her that propelled her career forward: honest charm and talent.
For the next 6 years as a recording artist, she could do no wrong: outselling Garth Brooks (who was the hottest star in country music at the time); having 3 different albums chart in the same year in Australia (something no female artist had ever or has ever done); all 6 of her albums were certified at least double platinum; Juno Awards; Canadian Country Music Association Awards; East Coast Music Association Awards; top-rated TV specials. That kind of success is dizzying. That it could happen to someone like Rita was remarkable.
Intensely shy, born with a cleft palate, a troubled childhood and a large woman, Rita was as far away from a pop star as you could get. I will always remember Eric Malling from the current affairs show ‘The Fifth Estate’ asking her during an interview ‘why don’t you lose some weight’. The backlash against him was like a firestorm. Rita was the first Susan Boyle before there was a Susan Boyle.
When it was announced that she was going to be the host of her own Friday night variety show on CBC in 1994, the general consensus was ‘what?’ But it worked. It was a hit and lasted for 3 years. She even won a Gemini award for best host of a variety show. It was after the show ended that her career slowed, especially her record sales. She had been having Declan O’Doherty produce all her successful albums, but it seemed like after he left, the quality of the production went down, as did her sales. But she continued on as a performer, regularly touring for many years as people continued to come see her.
Last week, I went back and listened to some of her catalogue. Her lyrics have always been real and down to earth and painfully honest. There was always sadness in her songs and her voice and I imagine a lot of it was very real. Her voice started out very strong and crystal clear and as she continued to record (as with many singers) it grew deeper. At the end of her career, she could no longer hit those clear notes or sustain notes like she used to when she would just lose herself in a blues or R&B song and belt it. It’s sad when that happens, which makes her earlier work mind-blowingly good. It is no surprise that all of her albums from her heyday were successful because there are some real gems on them: haunting, sad, inspirational, twangy, anthems, pop, MOR – she did all of them well.
So it was sad to see her go – personally and as a fellow Nova Scotian. She was a talented, brave, trail-blazer who was an inspiration to many.
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