Nothing – politicians, fame, or drunks – fazes this Canadian Celtic folk band, named group of the year at the 1993 Canadian Country Music Awards
By DEBORAH JONES
BADDECK, Nova Scotia, Canada 1993
It’s late afternoon on a hot August day, and several members of The Rankin Family band are relaxing around a sidewalk table outside a deli in Baddeck, N.S.
Raylene Rankin is biting into her sandwich when a drunk shuffles up and plunks himself down at the table.
Hello, what’s your name?” asks Raylene.
Carl,” says the drunk. Glassily, he eyes the food. The Rankins are eating a light supper before the concert they’re to give tonight for Canada’s 10 premiers plus the territorial and aboriginal leaders, who are holding a meeting in Baddeck.
Do you want some coffee?” offers Raylene, whose impish crop of dark hair belies the serious intelligence in her eyes.
No,” says Carl. “I’d like a sandwich.”
Raylene goes into the deli and comes out with a thick chicken sandwich and tea, which she hands to Carl the way she’d pass the ketchup to one of her siblings.
Thanks,” he says.
As Carl eats, the Rankins ask him if he knows anyone from Mabou, their hometown, about an hour’s drive away, and they discover a mutual acquaintance. Across the table, Cookie Rankin slips the word “damn” into a conversation with her brother John Morris. “Watch your language!” he says, cuffing her lightly on the shoulder.
Carl finishes his sandwich. “Can I have two bucks?” Cookie hands him a bill, then, worried he’ll buy booze, asks, “What are you going to do with it?”
Raylene interjects: “It’s none of our business!” Carl staggers off and the siblings finish their meal, blending, in their shorts and casual shirts, with the locals and tourists in this Cape Breton village.
National success as Canada’s premier Celtic folk band hasn’t changed much about the Rankin family, who formed the band in 1989. Today, they teeter on the edge of international success. Their eclectic blend of pop, eastern country and timeless Gaelic tunes (a language they don’t speak but get phonetic coaching in) draws sellout crowds in Canada, the United States and Britain. After gold and triple – platinum sales of their first two recordings, The Rankin Family and Fare Thee Well, Love, they launched their third CD, North Country, this fall, under a worldwide record deal with EMI Music Canada. In September, they picked up two Canadian Country Music Awards, for group of the year and “rising stars.” The five band members come from the middle ranks of a close – knit family of 12 children. John Morris, 34, sandy – haired and gentle, is the band’s musical centre, playing fiddle and keyboards. He has a bachelor of arts degree and has mostly supported himself with music. He lives in Cape Breton with his wife, Sally, and two children, Molly and Michael.
Raylene, 33, the matter – of – fact older sister, sings and writes some of their songs. She lives in Halifax with her husband, Colin Anderson, a garage supervisor. Trained as a lawyer, Raylene practised law for nine months, but found it stressful and happily put it on the back burner to sing.
Jimmy, 29, of the wild grin and joking manner, belts out songs, plays acoustic guitar and writes most original Rankin music. He lives in Halifax with his wife, Mia Nishi, a former New York investment banker. In 1989, he finished a fine arts degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.
Cookie, 28, whose childhood nickname stuck better than her christened name of Carol Jean, and Heather, 26, provide vocals. Cookie recently gave up her Halifax apartment and now lives with her mother in Mabou when not traveling. Spunky dark – haired Heather lives in Halifax. Both sisters graduated in 1989 from Acadia University with bachelor’s degrees in fine arts, and both are single. Filling out the band are three hired musicians on bass, drums and fiddle, as well as low – key brother David Rankin, 36, who works offstage as sound man. The band’s distinctive sound has charmed fans. In a review early this year, The Vancouver Sun gushed: “Listening to the Rankins sing a traditional song … is like being transported back to another time. Heather, Raylene and Cookie Rankin blend their voices in heavenly harmony, sending shivers up the spine singing in a language few listeners understand.”
The Rankins epitomize two potent symbols that hark back to simpler times — The Family and Tradition. Will this down–east family band survive the notoriously bitchy world of stardom? Will they want to?
But another part of the Rankins’ popularity is that they epitomize two potent symbols that hark back to simpler times — The Family and Tradition. Cloaked by the reserve of clannish Cape Bretoners, they have managed to remain unpretentious and really, well, nice. But the siblings are protective of each other and painfully thin – skinned, harboring a litany of perceived slights in the many public encounters not to their liking. They were hurt when TV host Dini Petty pointed out that they’re short (the women stand barely five feet tall). They’re angry about being described in a 1992 issue of Maclean’s as wearing tartan (they don’t). In the presence of strangers, they seem completely at ease only onstage. And as they tackle the capricious mass music market with its attendant publicity, the biggest question is whether this down – east family band will survive the notoriously bitchy world of stardom — and whether they’ll want to.
About 1,500 people live in the hills and glens around Mabou, a tiny community on the windswept western shore of Cape Breton Island. In the mid – 1950s, newlyweds Kaye and Buddy Rankin, a mechanic, set up housekeeping on Mabou’s Highland Street, and started a family that swelled to 12 children in 13 years. With Buddy on the fiddle, the Rankins filled their home with the laments and raucous reels of their ancestors, who’d come from northern Scotland in the early 1800s. It was common for Cape Bretoners to entertain themselves with music, but pushed by their ambitious parents, the Rankin children took their talents far beyond the local kitchen circuit. Now 56, matriarch Kaye Rankin says she urged her kids into the limelight partly to help them earn pocket money and partly because she thought their talents should be developed. She was a strict taskmaster, and for the young Rankins, there was more duty than joy in practising for their performances at local fairs and ceilidhs (a Gaelic word pronounced kay – lee, meaning party), singing mostly the Celtic folk songs that are the core of the band’s repertoire today. The roster kept changing, with each successive child making his or her stage debut between ages 5 and 8, singing, step dancing and, later, fiddling or playing piano.
As children, we didn’t like to rehearse,” recalls Cookie. “But in my day, you listened to your mom.” Laughing, she admits that Kaye’s prodding paid off. “When we were young, singing was a geeky thing to do. It’s fun now that I know it’s okay and I’m fun now that I know it’s okay and I’m better at it.”
Cookie’s modesty aside, there was never any question the Rankins were good. They had virtually no formal music training, and even today, the band members admit they don’t read music well. Yet, all had an ear for music; John Morris especially, who quickly learned to play several musical instruments by ear. Daniel Goode, an associate professor of music at Rutgers University who became a friend after meeting the family in 1972, ranks John Morris among the best traditional fiddle players he’s encountered.
In the early years, the sole family bread – winner was Buddy, a hard worker and an occasional hard drinker who neighbors say could fix anything. As the children grew up, performing at community events like weddings and dances, the money they brought in provided extras that Buddy’s salary would not cover. As Kaye recalls over coffee in her living room: “In the ’60s, times were tough. There was no money and no luxuries, although there was plenty to eat. The kids all know how to work, I’ll tell you that.” In 1970, Kaye began working as an aide at a Mabou home for mentally – handicapped adults.
Today, photographs of Kaye’s children and grandchildren adorn the walls of the big, comfortable cedar – sided house that was built plank – by – plank by Buddy and the boys, as money allowed. The family moved in in 1980. The following year, Buddy died suddenly, when the youngest child, Nancy, was just 12.
Their father’s death was a huge upheaval, which the Rankins still flatly refuse to discuss with reporters. Always slightly guarded, they become icy when asked about a matter they consider inviolately private. Whatever the lasting impact of Buddy’s death, with Kaye left supporting the family on her aide’s salary, the young Rankins seemed more determined than ever to do their share for the family — and to do well. Today, all 12 children have either acquired trades, such as carpentry, or put themselves through university by working and playing musical gigs. Although they’ve had to spread out as far as Los Angeles in their search for work, all are employed, and all come home to Mabou as often as they can for family get – togethers.
In 1989, when the five Rankins decided to turn their musical hobby into full – time jobs, “We were all at a crossroads,” says Heather. She, Cookie and Jimmy were fresh out of school, Raylene was reexamining her law career, and John Morris was supporting his family by playing gigs. (The other siblings were either busy with careers or school, or not interested in the venture.) Deciding to take a chance, the five registered a business called the Rankin Family Band and plunged into show biz, recording their first album, The Rankin Family, with a $15,000 loan from an older sister, Genevieve. “There was a great feeling of independence and, at the same time, a fear that we weren’t quite sure where it was all heading,” says Cookie. “Yet, we were all young enough not to worry too much.”
They piled their new tapes and CDs into their mother’s car and drove about Nova Scotia selling them to gas stations, roadside restaurants and stores.
Their marketing strategy required help from other family members. They piled their new tapes and CDs into their mother’s car and drove about Nova Scotia selling them to gas stations, roadside restaurants and stores. Says Rosalie Fraser Pino, owner of a gas bar in Baddeck, “I sell tourists a Rankin Family tape when they start driving around the Cabot Trail (which goes through Cape Breton Highlands National Park) and I tell them if they don’t like it they can get their money back when they return.” Pino sells about 300 tapes a year; not one has come back. Since March 1992, when the band signed a record contract with EMI, the family has been able to leave most of the marketing to others. Still, the work is hard: between rehearsing, practising on their own, writing new songs and hunting down old ones, it’s a full – time job. In 1993, they’ve spent about 20 weeks on tour. (On the road, the sisters’ devotion to exercise and health food sometimes sets them at odds with their cigarette – smoking brothers, who prefer hamburgers and fries.)
For all their successful albums, the siblings still live modestly. First – class travel is out of the question, and while they can fill concert halls in Canada, they play mostly festivals and some bar gigs in Europe and the U.S. There are perks, of course, the biggest being that all band members delight in making music together. “We’re making a living doing it. There’s not too many artists that can,” says Jimmy. “It’s a hard business. We’re lucky we’ve gotten popular.”
I’ll sound like a squawking stork,” frets Cookie, worried the band will be rusty at tonight’s concert for the premiers, the Rankins’ first gig after a three – week rest from their tour of the United Kingdom. The three sisters are in the girls’ changeroom backstage at Baddeck’s high school gym, waiting for the 300 or so banqueters out front — premiers, ministers and senior bureaucrats — to finish eating lobsters so the concert can begin. As Cookie holds up two flowing stage robes, deciding which to wear, Heather tries on shoes, and Raylene flips through a songbook. Bored, Jimmy saunters to the kitchen, where he loads two big plates with lobster and scarfs them down before changing clothes and slicking his hair back a la James Dean. John Morris and the other players are relaxing down the hall. Finally,at 10:15, 75 minutes late, Nova Scotia Premier John Savage introduces the band.
Instantly animated, the Rankins run onto the stage and launch into Orangedale Whistle, one of their trademark tunes. As the enthusiastic applause dies down, Raylene announces she’s trying something new with audience participation. She descends from the stage and approaches a tall blond man.
What’s your name?” she asks.
“Bob Rae. My children are going to be so embarrassed,” groans Ontario’s premier.
“Where are you from?” queries Raylene.
“Saskatchewan,” jokes Rae.
“And what do you do for work?” asks she.
“I’m looking for alternative employment,” says he.
“Oh, I was going to ask if you liked your job,” says she.
“I like my job, but my job doesn’t like me.”
The audience howls with laughter, Rae grins, and Raylene bounces back onstage, where the Rankins continue to dish out their mixture of keening harmonies and stomping, down – home crowd pleasers. Soon, the roomful of premiers and bureaucrats, who’ve spent two days wrangling over trade issues, a stagnant economy and rampant unemployment, are slapping their tables, tapping their heels and singing at the tops of their voices. At the end, they refuse to let the minstrels go, and everyone stands and yells and yells and yells for an encore. After swallows of bottled water backstage, the band obliges.
Solemnly, Raylene stands before them. A hush falls over the darkened gym. “You have a big job to keep this country together,” she tells the premiers and the bureaucrats. “We hope you do well.” She glides into Rise Again, a spine – tingling Cape Breton ballad holding out hope for the future. Her sisters join in, and soon, the clear strong voices of all three Rankin women soar over the heads of Canada’s policymakers, through the open doors of the gym, over Bras d’Or Lake and up into the starry night sky.
Copyright © 1993 Deborah Jones
Originally published in Chatelaine magazine, December 1993