Maritimers have said for years that Cape Breton's Rita MacNeil deserved to be designated a national treasure. Canadian folk-music fans have revered the pure beauty of her voice since the 1960s. Feminists adopted the divorced mother of two as their own in the mid-1970s, when her haunting melodies and heartfelt lyrics captured both their dreams and their simmering frustrations. And many more people from across Canada and around the world fell under MacNeil’s spell two years ago, when she gave 88 exuberant concerts in six weeks at Vancouver’s Expo 86. But it has taken MacNeil’s diverse and intensely loyal audience more than two decades to form the kind of base on which a performer’s career is successfully built. Now 43, after years of insecurity, the unlikely pop star from Big Pond, Cape Breton (population 175) is flying on her own.
Her latest album, Reason to Believe, gained platinum status last week after selling 100,000 copies. In fact, by the end of this year, sales for it and two other records, last year’s Flying on Your Own and her new Christmas release, Now the Bells Ring (released this week, with advance orders already of 70,000), will easily exceed 300,000 copies—a rare accomplishment for a Canadian artist without a hit single at home or even a record release in the United States. Last month, she sang for an enraptured audience of 10,000 in Halifax’s Metro Centre, the largest crowd ever drawn there by a Maritimer. And her current cross-country tour is attracting capacity crowds.
A performance at Toronto’s 2,812-seat Roy Thomson Hall on Nov. 5 sold out even before it was widely advertised, leading to the addition of another show on Nov. 27. And in Vancouver, where she concludes the western leg of her tour on Dec. 19, strong ticket sales have led to a third scheduled concert at the 2,800-seat Queen Elizabeth Auditorium. Said Brookes Diamond, MacNeil’s Halifax-based manager: “Only a year ago, we were too frightened to even attempt an Ontario tour. Now we are convinced that she can have a big hit south of the border within a year.” In an interview with Maclean ’s last week, at the rambling 90-year-old house in Sydney where she lives much of the year with her son, Wade, MacNeil spoke with characteristic modesty about her recent success. Said MacNeil: “I cannot believe my good fortune.”
When MacNeil walked onstage last week at the 500-seat Arts Centre in Brockville, Ont., 75 km east of Kingston, Ont., she received the warm, enthusiastic welcome that greets her everywhere she performs in Canada. But her short stature and dumpling shape, which belie the new pop image she has chosen for herself, caused a gasp from at least one concertgoer. Still, MacNeil, who wore a trademark floppy hat and a voluminous royal-blue overblouse atop a shortish pale-blue skirt, quickly charmed the few skeptics with her self-deprecating humor and her astonishing voice—sweet and pure one moment, down and dirty the next. Bolstered by her versatile band, MacNeil kicked off her shoes and set about seducing her mainly middle-aged audience with new material and old favorites performed with a fresh twist. Although she began Part of the Mystery with familiar acoustic accompaniment, the audience seemed not to care when the song drifted into full-tilt rock, complete with flashing stage lights. They responded with two standing ovations and called MacNeil back for four encores.
MacNeil’s fans say they are perplexed that her compelling voice has not attracted more international attention and that her manifest talent as a songwriter has not been more widely recognized. But Anne Murray, whose recent version of MacNeil’s tribute to female liberation, Flying on Your Own, won little airplay, attributes at least some of her difficulties to the nature of the music industry itself. “That song, which I loved the first time I heard it, got a terrific response from live audiences,” Murray told Maclean ’s. “It died for one reason: it is written from a woman’s point of view—and all the radio programmers are men. I don’t have much time for people like that, but that’s the way it is in this business.” And Murray added that MacNeil’s appearance may prove to be a hindrance in an industry that often relies on youth, fashion and formula.
Still, MacNeil is defying the odds. She admits that it has taken years for her to overcome her self-consciousness about her unwieldy body and to move away from behind a stationary microphone to the front of the stage. But while the Canadian music establishment has yet to fully embrace her, acceptance is clearly growing. In 1987, she graciously accepted a Juno Award as Canada’s “most promising female vocalist,” an honor that some veteran performers might have taken as an insult.
MacNeil began winning wider airplay—largely on easy-listening stations in smaller centres across Canada—with last year’s Flying on Your Own album. Now, with the more aggressively stylish Reason to Believe, produced by Toronto’s Declan O’Doherty, executives at her Torontobased label, Virgin Records, are predicting “crossover” success, which, for MacNeil, means a penetration of the urban markets and the pop charts. Yet, as she finds herself on the edge of pop stardom, MacNeil faces a new challenge: how to reach a broader audience without compromising the deeply personal quality of her music.
She hotly disputes suggestions, made by some reviewers who found Reason to Believe too lush and rockoriented, that she has lost control of her career. Said MacNeil: “I am very nervous of labels—and any changes in my music are changes I make myself.” The singer, who was relaxing with members of her family before embarking on her Ontario tour, added: “There is no kind of music I don’t like and I see every song as a chance to grow. People forget that I got my start here at home singing in clubs where all they wanted was rock ’n’ roll. The fact is, I love it.”
MacNeil wins almost universal acclaim for her songs, including compositions such as She’s Called Nova Scotia, which have become regional anthems. Her sense of place and her intimate, often painful ballads to lost loves and bittersweet moments strike sympathetic chords in hard-rock teenagers and rock-hardened miners. Indeed, according to MacNeil, the proudest moment of her career took place last month when she sang Working Man—her tribute to Maritime coal-diggers—with a miners’ choir called the Men of the Deeps to a reverential and, in many cases, tearful Halifax audience. Some of her most affecting compositions deal with her working-class parents—she was the fourth of eight children. Old Man is a tribute to her father, a carpenter who built many of the houses in Big Pond; the song Reason to Believe celebrates her homemaker mother, who died 15 years ago. Said MacNeil: “She was a great inspiration to me. It is a sadness to me that she never got to hear me perform or to hear one of my records.”
Another of her songs, The Music’s Going Round Again, extends an olive branch to Toronto, which she says nearly broke her spirit more than a decade ago. When MacNeil sings, “And this is where my song began/I tried to hold you, you weren’t ready then” to Toronto audiences, the upbeat tempo and conciliatory words disguise a difficult period in her life. When she left Big Pond for the mainland after completing high school in 1962, MacNeil says, she was convinced that the world was waiting to embrace her. “It was a dream that carried me from Cape Breton,” she recalled. “Singing was always with me since I was a child. I felt it was what I had to do and that I had to leave Cape Breton to make it come true.”
MacNeil seems guarded about her 10 years in Toronto from 1962 to 1972. “The city was good to me in many ways, but there were many years of struggle too,” she said. She declined to talk about the man she married there, with whom she had two children, Laura, now 22, and Wade, 18. The marriage was short-lived, and fame and fortune eluded her. She endured a series of low-paying jobs, including positions as a part-time clerk at Eaton’s and as a cleaning woman. Occasionally, she relied on welfare when she was desperate and sang when she could. Her occasional appearances at Toronto's fabled Riverboat folk club and more frequent performances at the Mariposa folk festival won her a small but devoted group of admirers. But her music, she recalls, “never did pay the rent.” She added, “There were times I would just as soon forget.”
But in those dark years, MacNeil found inspiration from an unexpected source. She drifted into Toronto’s lively feminisjt community and quickly became its unofficial troubadour. And she began to write songs. The feminist experience, MacNeil says now, changed her life forever. “Before then, I was just going, I wasn’t aware of a lot of things about myself and about the world. It was a very great inspiration to me.” Her first album, 1975’s Born a Woman, drew on that inspiration—and won her an audience that is still fiercely loyal.
But the women who claim MacNeil as their own have had to share her. Few singers enjoy the kind of following that she has in the Maritimes. “So many Maritime performers—Wilf Carter, Hank Snow, Anne Murray, Carroll Baker—have gone down the road and never came back,” said Diamond. “Rita moved back and they love her for it.” That assessment is confirmed by residents of Big Pond. “No one will hear a bad word said about her here,” said Mary Maclnnis, from behind the counter of the village’s tiny general store. “She can sing whatever she likes, we love her.”
Life was still difficult when MacNeil returned, discouraged, to Cape Breton in 1976, but her friends and large, close-knit extended family kept her afloat. Still, Maclnnis recalls how tenuous the singer’s financial situation was. “The For Sale sign on her little house would go up, then she would get a concert, and it would come down,” she said. “A month later, up it would go again. That went on for years.” Two years ago, the sign on the bright red converted schoolhouse came down for good.
Last year, MacNeil bought a house in Sydney, a concession to the harsh Big Pond winters and a testimony to her growing career, which requires proximity to Sydney airport for frequent trips away. And she says, “Home is Cape Breton, and I’m here to stay.” As her devoted following extends beyond Maritimers, feminists and folk-music lovers, and success takes her even further afield, the modest woman with the big voice still knows the value of her down-east roots.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.