The Voice of The Salvation Army in Canada and BermudaView RSS Feed
Apr17WedRita MacNeil overcame adversity and hardship to become one of Canada's most beloved singers. April 17, 2013 by Paul Weigel
To mark the untimely passing of Rita MacNeil this week, Faith & Friends is reprinting the cover story we published on her in February 2004, written by Paul Weigel:
- Filed Under:
- Faith & Friends
When Rita MacNeil was 12 years old, making music was a dream. Exceedingly shy and born with a cleft palate, the odds seemed stacked against her. Growing up in the backwater town of Big Pond, Nova Scotia, didn't help either. But Rita's determination, faith and musical gifts carried her through, eventually making her one of the most recognized names in the Canadian music industry.
In 1956 Big Pond was like many rural communities in Canada—industrious, but isolated. Radio was the main connection to the outside world. “As a teenager, I'd listen to everything from Celtic rock to Hawaiian music,” Rita recollects. “I could hardly wait to come home from school and put the radio on.”
Throughout Nova Scotia, a rich Celtic tradition influenced the folk music being written and performed in the churches and community halls. Music was a connection to the past, a comfort for hard times and a hope for the future.
Although Big Pond was home for Rita, it didn't offer many opportunities. At 17, Rita moved to Toronto, married and had two children. She hoped to find a way to develop the music she had inside her, but circumstances put music a distant second in her life. Rita grappled with an unhappy marriage, depression and low self-esteem. After a painful divorce she kept the family afloat by waitressing and cleaning. It was during these times that Rita doubted her dream would come true. But she was reminded by her mother's words to “have faith and pray.”
Rita understood what her mother meant. The roots of her Christian faith went all the way back to her childhood. Without faith there would have been no dream. It was in the difficult times that Rita's faith carried her through, and the spark of hope never went out.
“A lot of songs come out of those hard times and you learn a lot about yourself,” explains Rita. Her mother's faith inspired the song Reason To Believe. “My mother was a great encouragement to me,” Rita recalls. “She believed in the singing because she knew that's what I loved.”
By the late '60s and early '70s, Rita was developing as a songwriter, playing coffee houses and some outdoor festivals. Her emphasis on down-to-earth lyrics and the East Coast influences in her music gave her a unique musical style. She recorded her first album, Born a Woman, in 1975.
In 1978 Rita returned to Cape Breton where she discovered a new audience for her music and a vibrant musical community. Deciding to stay was a good decision, both professionally and personally. “Living in Cape Breton keeps me grounded,” says Rita. “It reminds me of who I am and where I came from. I'm among people I know, love and trust and there's a great comfort in that.”
Being true to her roots helped Rita define herself as a musician and a songwriter. Her music became a clear reflection of her life and faith. She made two more albums, Part of the Mystery and I'm Not What I Seem, which suffered from poor publicity and distribution.
In 1987 her music career took off when Rita released her third independent album Flying On Your Own. It captured the attention of a wide audience and the upstart record label Virgin Records (Canada). Rita became one of the “hot prospects” of the Canadian music industry.
That year she won a Juno Award for Most Promising New Artist. Two more Juno Awards came her way over the next four years. She also received four Canadian Country Music Awards and, in 1992, she was presented with the Order of Canada in recognition of her outstanding musical achievement.
Rita's music embodies the spirit of common people. It talks candidly about what makes life sweet and what makes life hard. It captures the people and places along her life journey. It communicates hope and it always relies on faith.
The homespun presentation of her music won the hearts of people all over the world. Rita always closed her performances with an invitation: “If you're ever in Big Pond, drop in for a cup of tea.” People did, and Rita's Tea Room was born.
Rita's musical journey has included a hit TV series, Rita & Friends, which won her a Gemini Award, tours of Australia and Japan and her collaboration with Men of the Deeps, Cape Breton's salt-of-the-earth miners' choir. Rita has also garnered huge ratings for her Christmas specials on two of Canada's national networks.
The most satisfying part of Rita's musical career is that her son, Wade, now works as her manager and her daughter, Laura, runs Rita's Tea Room in Big Pond. Her family has been a constant source of inspiration and joy.
It seems fitting that at the pinnacle of Rita's career, she would release her first gospel music recording, Common Dream. The album is both the culmination of her faith and the expression of her struggles with it.
“It's hard talking about faith sometimes and in some places,” says Rita. “Some people asked me why I would do a gospel album, but I can't imagine why I wouldn't—it's a part of me.” The song, Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody, highlights the challenge of being a Christian in a world that scorns faith. In the end, the chorus proclaims: “I couldn't keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me.”
Common Dream speaks about Rita's roots and her faith in a world filled with love, joy and peace. Most of all, it expresses the fulfilment of a dream nurtured by a life of faith.