Rita MacNeil, CM, ONS, singer, songwriter (born 28 May 1944 in Big Pond, NS; died 16 April 2013 in Big Pond, NS). Rita MacNeil was a soft-spoken, independent singer-songwriter in the folk, pop and country genres. Her passionate, resonant voice sang with both strength and fragility about overcoming adversity, earning her the loyalty of mainstream pop and country audiences in Canada and abroad. One of several Nova Scotian singers who brought the Cape Breton music scene to national and international prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, she was the top-selling country artist in Canada in 1990 and 1991, outselling such American stars as Garth Brooks and Clint Black. She released 24 albums and received three Juno Awards, four Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Awards, a Gemini Award, and 11 East Coast Music Awards. She was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and named to the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.
MacNeil was born into a large, poor family with alcoholic parents in Cape Breton. Her childhood was made even more difficult by a sexually abusive uncle and the need for repeated surgeries to repair a cleft palate. Gifted with a natural singing voice, she had some lessons but was mostly self-taught. She became pregnant as a teenager and at age 17 she moved with her child to Toronto to seek work, finding a job at an Eatons department store. Eventually, she became involved in the women’s movement, attending meetings of the Toronto Women’s Caucus, which led her to write songs as a mode of self-expression.
As a performer, MacNeil had a later start than most. She first sang publicly in 1971 in Toronto, at folk venues including The Riverboat. Her early compositions (“Born a Woman,” “War of Conditioning”) were protest songs with a feminist perspective. Her early audiences were generally at women’s groups, rallies, and conventions. In 1975, MacNeil independently released her debut LP, Born a Woman, and began appearing at folk festivals, including the Mariposa Folk Festival. After living for a time in Ottawa, where she sang at political rallies, she returned to Cape Breton in 1979.
MacNeil performed widely in the Maritimes, where she made a breakthrough with the mainstream pop audience that eventually embraced her enthusiastically, and on a national scale, in the mid-1980s. A second, self-published LP, Part of the Mystery, was released in 1980, and a third, I Am Not What I Seem, in 1982. The latter included her song “Working Man,” a stirring anthem she wrote in homage to the coal miners of Cape Breton (see Coal Mining).
MacNeil appeared at major Canadian folk festivals in 1983 and 1984, sang at Expo 85 in Osaka, Japan, and performed for several weeks at Expo 86 in Vancouver. Her fourth LP, Flying on Your Own (1986), provided the commercial breakthrough she had long been working towards. It went double platinum in Canada (more than 200,000 copies sold) and brought MacNeil, at age 42, a Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist. The title song became her signature anthem — both it and “Fast Train to Tokyo” were hits.
MacNeil then signed with Virgin Records, which released Reason to Believe in 1988. A new version of “Working Man,” recorded with the Men of the Deeps, was popular, as were “Reason to Believe” and “Walk on Through.” The album also went double platinum in Canada, earned a Juno nomination for best album, and was a best seller in Australia and Great Britain. MacNeil received an Honorary Degree from the University of New Brunswick in 1988, and another from Saint Mary’s University in 1989. She appeared with the Men of the Deeps in 1988 before 10,000 people at the Halifax Metro Centre and again at the 1989 Juno Awards ceremonies in Toronto.
A Christmas album with several of her own songs, Now the Bells Ring, was issued in 1988 and went triple platinum in Canada. It was followed in 1989 by Rita, which went double platinum and included the country hit “I'll Accept the Rose,” as well as the pop hits “We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight” and “Crazy Love.” It also earned Juno nominations for best album, best composer and best female country vocalist, and won MacNeil the 1990 Juno Award for Female Vocalist of the Year.
MacNeil’s eighth album, Home I'll Be (1990), included the pop hit “You Taught Me Well” and went double platinum in Canada. At the 1991 Juno Awards, Home I’ll Be was nominated for best album and best female vocalist, while MacNeil won the Juno for Country Female Vocalist of the Year. She also received the CCMA Award for Top Selling Album (Foreign or Domestic) in 1990 and 1991, and the Fan’s Choice Award for entertainer of the year in 1991 and 1992.
Thinking of You (1992), Once Upon a Christmas (1993), and the greatest hits compilation Volume One: Songs from the Collection (1994) all went platinum in Canada. Porch Songs (1995) went gold in Canada, and earned MacNeil Juno nominations in 1993, 1994 and 1996 for best female vocalist. During this time, she also received honorary degrees from St Francis Xavier University, Mount Saint Vincent University and University College of Cape Breton. Her other 1990s releases included Joyful Sounds (1996), Music of a Thousand Nights (1997), and the live album A Night at the Orpheum (1999). In 1998, Key Porter Books published her autobiography, On a Personal Note.
Charlie Rhindress’s stage play Flying On Her Own, about MacNeil’s life and song lyrics, was first performed in 2000 and published by Playwrights Canada Press in 2008. MacNeil’s Mining the Soul and Common Dream were released in 2000 and 2002 respectively, and in 2002 she was awarded the Golden Jubilee Medal. Her later albums, Songs My Mother Loved (2006), Pocket Full of Dreams (2008), Rita MacNeil: Live in Concert (2008) and Saving Grace (2012) included a selection of cover songs.
CBC Television aired a documentary of MacNeil and the Men of the Deeps in 1990. MacNeil went on to host the CBC-TV variety show Rita and Friends 1994–97, for which she received a 1996 Gemini Award, as well as CTV specials. Rita and Friends consistently drew audiences of two million viewers. The show was eventually cancelled while at the height of its popularity, amid controversy. MacNeil’s shy, reserved demeanour on stage made her the antithesis of most TV entertainers, but endeared her to her followers. She also made guest appearances on several Canadian TV shows, including the “Tommy Hunter Show,” “Royal Canadian Air Farce” and “Trailer Park Boys.”
Live Performance Style and Successes
Despite suffering from chronic stage fright, by 1988 MacNeil was performing multiple dates at major Canadian concert halls, such as the Orpheum and Queen Elizabeth theatres in Vancouver, and Roy Thomson Hall and the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto. She also performed at Expo 88 in Brisbane, Australia, toured in Europe, and in 1989 made her US debut at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. MacNeil toured the UK in 1991 and Australia in 1992, performing at the Royal Albert Hall and Sydney Opera House. She achieved Top 10 hits in both countries. However, she did not achieve the same success in the US. She continued performing and recording through the 2000s, including touring with Frank Mills in Canada in 2010 and 2012.
MacNeil’s concerts were typically homey in presentation, broadly based in musical style from country to R&B, and inspirational in tone, often moving her listeners to tears. MacNeil’s expressive, emotionally evocative singing voice with its resonant, moving vibrato stood in contrast to her slow, shy speaking voice. She found freedom in singing, and her persona as a hopeful optimist who overcame many obstacles (cleft palate, poverty, weight problems, shyness) helped build loyal audiences.
The bulk of MacNeil’s successes came with her compositions. More than 200 of her own songs are registered with Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). Anne Murray had a modest hit with her version of “Flying On Your Own” in 1988, “We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight” received a SOCAN award in 1991, and MacNeil received the SOCAN National Achievement Award in 2009.
Unable to read or write music, MacNeil’s approach to songwriting was unusual in that she mentally composed music and lyrics together, spontaneously, before singing them to tape. A songbook of her music was published by Warner Chappell in 1997.
Death and Legacy
MacNeil was considered a pillar of the East Coast music scene. Her independent, idealistic spirit and hard-earned success in Canada and internationally were an inspiration to many artists. She was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1992 and received the Order of Nova Scotia in 2005. That year, she also received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the East Coast Music Awards, which bestowed its 25th Anniversary Award upon her in 2013. She gave her last performance during East Coast Music Week in March of that year before dying a month later at age 68 from complications following surgery. She was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in October 2013.
Her tea room in Cape Breton, a former one-room schoolhouse that she bought in 1982 and lived in for several years before opening as Rita’s Tea Room and Gift Shop in 1986, remains a popular tourist attraction.
Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year, Juno Awards (1987)
Honorary Degree, University of New Brunswick (1988)
Honorary Degree, Saint Mary’s University (1989)
Female Vocalist of the Year, Juno Awards (1990)
Country Female Vocalist of the Year, Juno Awards (1991)
Top Selling Album (Foreign or Domestic), Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Awards (1990 and 1991)
Bud Country Fans’ Choice, CCMA Awards (1991 and 1992)
Member, Order of Canada (1992)
Honorary Degree, St Francis Xavier University (1993)
Honorary Degree, Mount Saint Vincent University (1993)
Honorary Degree, University College of Cape Breton (1994)
Best Performance in a Variety Program or Series, Gemini Awards (1996)
Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award, East Coast Music Awards (2005)
Recipient, Order of Nova Scotia (2005)
SOCAN National Achievement Award (2009)
25th Anniversary Award, East Coast Music Awards (2013)
Inductee, Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame (2013)
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.