The "First Lady of Cape Breton," Rita MacNeil, is the newest inductee to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF). Today, on the anniversary of her untimely passing, MacNeil’s legacy will be indelibly remembered with a permanent place in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame at the National Music Centre in Calgary. A special tribute is planned for the 2021 East Coast Music Awards Show on Thursday, May 6, taking place in the songwriter’s home of Cape Breton, NS. The induction presentation will include a musical tribute performed by a cast of former bandmates, friends, and more.
Some of MacNeil’s best-known songs often spoke of Nova Scotia, however, her cross-genre appeal and immense talent resonated with Canadians across the country and globally. With her shy persona, MacNeil endeared herself to grassroots audiences nationwide and enjoyed commercial success despite not conforming to the music industry’s expectations. Her melody-driven, heartfelt songwriting resisted classification - sometimes country, sometimes hinting of folk, gospel and blues.
“Through her lyrics and songwriting, Rita allowed us into her heart and soul,” said Vanessa Thomas, Executive Director, Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. “The love between songwriter and audience was mutual. Rita didn’t sing to people, she sang for people; and her audiences, in return, gave her strength to overcome her shyness and stage anxiety. There are few artists who have such an intimate and authentic connection with their fans, and that bond lives on through her songs.”
As MacNeil once told the CBC: “The people in this country have given me such a career and loved me back so much.”
“We’re thrilled to partner with the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame to honour the tremendous legacy of Rita MacNeil,” said ECMA CEO Andy McLean. “As we celebrate the best of today’s East Coast artists, it’s also important to look back and recognize the impact that songwriters like Rita had on our region and its history. She was a phenomenal talent who represented the very best of our East Coast music community, and we’re very proud to be a part of her induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.”
Before reaching commercial success, MacNeil was involved with the women’s movement in the early 1970s writing feminist protest songs. Gradually, her songwriting evolved into a broader folk-pop autobiographical style, and she performed for rallies, at coffeehouses, folk clubs, the Mariposa and other folk festivals.
She recorded three albums independently beginning with “Born a Woman” (1975), but it was “Flying On Your Own,” her 1986 debut album with Virgin Records, that became her commercial breakthrough. With the successful single Flying On Your Own and the double-platinum album of the same name, MacNeil won her first JUNO Award in 1987 as Most Promising Female Vocalist, and ECMA Female Recording of the Year in 1989-1990 and 1993.
A large part of MacNeil’s successes came with her compositions. More than 200 of her own songs are registered with Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), and she was recognized in 2009 with SOCAN’s National Achievement Award. MacNeil often described her songwriting as arising from strong emotions for people or places, and has spoken of her songwriting technique as being unusual, with the music and lyrics coming together in her head simultaneously in the shape of songs.
1988’s Working Man, was inspired after a visit to Sydney Mines, and written as a tribute to the hardships and sacrifices of coal miners in Cape Breton – but it would serve an anthem for coal miners everywhere. The song, which she famously performed with the coal miners choir, The Men of the Deeps, soared to No. 11 in the U.K. She would continue to regularly perform with The Men of the Deeps, including at the 1989 JUNO Awards.
MacNeil became Canada’s top-selling country singer-songwriter in 1990 and 1991. Her highest charting single, We’ll Reach the SkyTonight, earned SOCAN’s Country Award in 1991; and in the same year her homage to Cape Breton, Home I’ll Be, won the ECMA Song of the Year. In total, MacNeil has received 11 East Coast Music Awards, culminating with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, making her the ECMA’s second most-winning female artist after Natalie MacMaster, and tied with Rose Cousins.
Her popular songs have been covered by the likes of Anne Murray, Tara MacLean, Matt Minglewood, The Elora Singers, The Elmer Iseler Singers, Celtic Thunder, Foster & Allen, and Mary K. Burke.
She also became a familiar face and beloved personality as host of her television variety show, “Rita and Friends,” which aired on CBC from 1994 to 1997. The show regularly drew millions of viewers and won a Gemini Award in 1996. MacNeil would continue to produce her own television specials, and make appearances on shows such as the “Royal Canadian Air Farce” and “Trailer Park Boys.”
She performed at the world’s fair during Vancouver’s Expo 86, and toured internationally at venues including the iconic Royal Albert Hall and Sydney Opera House. Having come far from her humble beginnings, MacNeil has earned membership in the Order of Canada and the Order of Nova Scotia, and was inducted posthumously to the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013.