The Rankins may have dropped "Family" from their stage name but, offstage, the word has taken on a new dimension. Last week, as Raylene Rankin sat in a Vancouver hotel doing telephone interviews to promote Uprooted, the five siblings' latest recording, she was interrupted by the crying of three-month-old Alexander Colin, her first child. The 37-year-old singer decided to take the infant along on a three-week western tour rather than be separated from him. "Babies are pretty portable at this age, and I have a young nanny to help me," said Raylene. "The tour's been arranged so that the drives between concert stops are short." Alexander seems to be starting his life the same way his mother and her sisters and brothers did - steeped in a mix of traditional Celtic and contemporary music.
A Vancouver hotel room is a long way from the kitchen in Mabou, Cape Breton Island, where the Rankin children, all 12 of them, grew up listening to fiddlers and singers. And the distance from Halifax, where four of the five performers now reside, is matched by the distance they've travelled professionally since their first release in 1989. To date, the group's recordings have sold nearly two million copies in Canada. With a repertoire that moves easily from traditional Gaelic ballads, jigs and reels to original songs with a country-rock flavor, The Rankins have won dozens of awards, including five Junos. Known for the three sisters' soaring harmonies, their seven albums (eight, if the women's 1997 Christmas album is counted) have earned them a diverse crowd of homegrown fans and a devoted following in Britain and in the eastern United States. Already, Movin' On, the single released late last month, has reached No.11 on Canadian country music charts.
All under 40 (keyboardist and fiddler John Morris is the eldest at 39; singer Heather is the youngest at 30), The Rankins are nonetheless veterans of a lively East Coast music scene. The '90s have brought a strong wave of Maritime acts, from "alternative" rockers Sloan to P.E.I. singer-songwriter Lennie Gallant. But the Celtic music craze is a particularly strong current, encompassing everything from traditional Cape Breton fiddling to techno-pop fusions of Gaelic songs and electric guitars. Fiddlers extraordinaire Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster, singer Mary Jane Lamond, and such groups as Great Big Sea, The Barra MacNeils and Rawlins Cross have incorporated Celtic influences to varying degrees, each producing a distinctly different sound. "I think the pluralism of the music is a sign of the times," says Jimmy Rankin, 33, the group's main songwriter, "And yes, right now Celtic music in all its forms is very popular, and it may be reaching a peak. On the other hand, it's been around for a thousand years, so it'll probably always be around."
Raylene argues that the Cape Breton version of traditional Celtic music and step dancing is itself an amalgam of Irish, Scottish and Acadian influences, and that very diversity has kept the tradition more alive in Eastern Canada than in the old country. "Step dancing is a good example," she says. "There's very little of it in Scotland any more, but it's very much alive in Cape Breton. I think it shows that in order for any tradition to continue, it has to grow and change."
That philosophy is reflected in Uprooted, which includes a stronger focus on individual voices, a songwriting debut from Heather and an almost funky quality to a couple of the Celtic-flavored tunes. The Jimmy Rankin-penned Weddings, Wakes and Funerals, for example, sets fragments of spoken word to a driving beat, while the traditional Parlour Medley has a rap-like urgency from the use of Gaelic "mouth-music," in which voices are used to imitate instruments. The Rankins praise veteran producer George Massenburg, who has worked with Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and Lyle Lovett, for helping them move in new directions. Nashville-based Massenburg encouraged them to rely less on their trademark sound - the angelic chorus of the three sisters' harmonies. The producer, who had bought their albums after seeing The Rankins on an American morning talk show in the early '90s, worked with the group in Halifax and in Nashville, where most of Uprooted was recorded.
The new album appears after the group's year-long hiatus from touring. During that so-called year off, The Rankins wrote songs and arrangements for the new album. As well, the three sisters worked on a separate album of Christmas fare, Do You Hear, released last November. Heather put her Acadia University theatre training to work, playing a small part in The Hanging Garden, Thom Fitzgerald's much-lauded film directing debut. Three of them contributed to albums by other East Coast musicians, and the women participated in an international documentary called Celtic Tides, to be aired on CBC.
The year ended with the death from cancer of the Rankins' 60-year-old mother, Kathleen. She had managed her children's fan club right up until the end. And before EMI Music Canada signed the group to a major contract in 1992, she had operated a small distribution company selling The Rankins' independently produced albums on Cape Breton Island. Kathleen and Alexander (Buddy) Rankin (a mechanic who died in 1981) are pictured on the Uprooted CD case, a young couple dressed up in party finery. "Putting that photo in it was a tribute to our parents, the last links to our childhood," says Cookie. "And, for me, the Uprooted title signals a kind of closure."
But sister Raylene says the word has another meaning for her. From the countryish opening tune, Movin' On, to the last cut, a traditional Scottish ballad called Farewell to Lochabar, the album moves backward in time through a unique Cape Breton heritage, she notes. "Lochabar is the area of Scotland from where my father's family emigrated six or seven generations ago, a tremendous uprooting" she says. "Our choice of material on the album shows a kind of progression from one stage to another in the Cape Breton genre."
The album also signals The Rankins' progression to a different kind of image. They seem less inclined to trade off the family aspect of their act, preferring to think of themselves as five musicians who happen to be siblings. Changes in hair, clothes, and even the CD's moody design reflect a shift from wholesomeness to a darker, more edgy look. With a loyal fan base at home and abroad, remarkable domestic sales and energy to burn, The Rankins seem not so much uprooted as firmly established as a distinctively Canadian success.
Maclean's May 18, 1998