Cape Breton’s First Lady of Song, Rita MacNeil, left Nova Scotia at age 17, following her dream of becoming a singer-songwriter. In Toronto she worked various jobs, including as a cleaner at a theatre. Many were the times that she climbed onto that stage, imagining herself singing for an appreciative audience. MacNeil could not know then that she would go on to entertain thousands at venues like Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, Halifax’s Metro Centre and London’s Royal Albert Hall, tour the United Kingdom, Australia and Europe, and host her own television show.
MacNeil became involved with the women’s movement in the early 1970s, writing feminist protest songs. Gradually, her songwriting evolved into a broader folk-pop autobiographical style, and she performed for rallies, coffeehouses, folk clubs, the Mariposa and other folk festivals, and Vancouver’s Expo 86.
MacNeil eventually returned to the Cape Breton home where she had experienced early hardships including poverty, abuse, and surgeries to repair her cleft lip. She recorded three albums independently beginning with “Born a Woman” (1975), but it was “Flying On Your Own,” her 1986 debut album with Virgin Records, that became her commercial breakthrough.
With her matronly, homespun, shy persona, MacNeil endeared herself to grassroots audiences nationwide and enjoyed commercial success despite not conforming to the music industry’s expectations. Like MacNeil herself, her melody-driven, heartfelt songwriting resisted classification, sometimes country, sometimes hinting of folk, gospel or blues.
MacNeil often described her songwriting (and the voice with a rich vibrato which she described as “Something that was given to me; a gift,”) as arising from strong emotions for people or places. Her writing technique was unusual: The music and lyrics came together in her head simultaneously in the shape of songs. She would sing those emotions on stage, typically appearing barefoot sporting a fedora. She told the “Christian Science Monitor”: “The music is universal. It’s emotions that I write about.… People are looking for honesty, something real.”
With the successful single Flying On Your Own and the double-platinum album of the same name, MacNeil won her first Juno award in 1987 as most promising female vocalist. More Junos followed as top female vocalist (1990) and top country female vocalist (1991).
Her best-known songs indicate her wide cross-genre appeal and often spoke of Nova Scotia. Her highest charting single, We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight, earned SOCAN’s 1991 country award. Working Man, the popular coal miner’s anthem which she famously performed with the Men of the Deeps, soared to No. 11 in the U.K. I’ll Accept the Rose was nominated for ECMA and CCMA song of the year, and the patriotic Home I’ll Be, her homage to Cape Breton, was ECMA’s 1991 song of the year.
MacNeil was Canada’s top-selling country singer-songwriter in 1990 and 1991, and was the Canadian Country Music Awards’ entertainer of the year 1991-1992. She is an inductee to the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
She also won 11 East Coast Music Awards starting with female recording of the year in 1989- 1990 and 1993, and Factor recording of the year for three years running (1989‒1991), culminating with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
MacNeil’s many popular songs have been covered by Canadian and U.K. acts including Ann Murray, Tara MacLean, Matt Minglewood, the Men of the Deeps, The Elora Singers, The Elmer Iseler Singers, Celtic Thunder, Foster & Allen, and Mary K. Burke.
Having come far from her humble beginnings, Rita MacNeil earned SOCAN’s National Achievement Award and membership in the Order of Canada and the Order of Nova Scotia.
The love between the songwriter and her audiences was mutual: As MacNeil told the CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos: “The people in this country have given me such a career and loved me back so much.”
Rita MacNeil, born in Big Pond, Nova Scotia in 1944, passed away there in 2013.