Rita MacNeil is between engagements; on any given day, she is likely sitting at her kitchen table or in front of her computer checking her mail. She may be reading a letter from someone who attended one of her concerts or from a fan that heard her at a folk festival thirty years ago. And there may be a package with a special memento sent as a token of their appreciation of a lyric, a meeting or a melody that moved them. Or she may be working on a new song.
Who could have imagined that this very shy girl with a cleft palate from a small village in Eastern Canada would become a national treasure and an internationally sought after performer? Rita could. She remembers rushing home after school to listen to the hit parade and eagerly waiting for Don Ho's late night radio show. Music was everything; it was her dream to write and perform.
Rita MacNeil grew up in Big Pond, Cape Breton a tight knit community over looking the beautiful Brad d'Or Lakes. In the early 6o's there wasn't much of a music scene at home, so at 17, she left to pursue a singing and writing career. It was difficult to leave, but it was especially hard to leave her mother Renee who encouraged her daughter to believe in her dreams. Although she missed her father, Neil, a hard-working carpenter and shop-owner and her seven siblings, she stuck it out in Ontario. As a single parent to two young children she struggled to support them taking cleaning and waitressing jobs. During late 60's and early 70's Rita performed at outdoor festivals and smoke filled coffee houses. Lyrical observations, anchored in the growing woman's movement of the day, were embraced by that community, which led to Rita's first recording, "Born A Woman" in 1975.
Returning to Cape Breton in 1978 to perform, Rita discovered an energizing musical community on the East Coast, which was supportive of her music. Of this period Rita recalls... "That's when my career took a better direction. Moving back home, the writing seemed to open up more and I was re-introduced to my roots". "My connection," she says "to other island musicians helped bring everything into focus."
This supportive atmosphere took her to the studio for more recordings - "Part of the Mystery" and "I'm Not What I Seem"- bringing Rita's emotional and inspirational music to a wider audience. Although there were sparse production and distribution takers, Rita went ahead and independently released "Flying On Your Own" in 1987. Favorable sales and public response prompted Virgin Records (Canada) to become a champion of this talented lady's music.
It soon became apparent to those who experienced her performances or heard her music that Rita MacNeil was a major talent. When she wasn't in the recording studio, she was off with her band touring Japan, Great Britain, Sweden, Australia or the U.S. She soon found herself looking out from the stages of Royal Albert Hall in London, England and the Sydney Opera House in Australia. In Vancouver, during Expo '86, there was wild enthusiasm for her music, and both audiences and journalists embraced this talented lady.
Recognition of her talents flows from many directions. Awards acknowledged her musical accomplishments. She received three Junos, Canadašs highest musical honor... Most promising new artist (1987); Female Vocalist (1990) and Female Country Vocalist (1991); four Canadian Country Music Awards (Fan Choice of the years 1991 and 1992) and Top Selling Album (1991& 1992). Rita received Honorary Doctorates from St. Mary's University, Mount St. Vincent University, St. Francis Xavier University and The University College of Cape Breton. One of Rita's proudest moments was being inducted into the Order of Canada in 1992.
To date Rita has produced 17 albums (the latest being 'Mining The Soul'). Although live performances and recordings give Rita deep satisfaction, the prospect of doing television was a bit unnerving for this shy woman. No need to worry. She garnered huge ratings for her Christmas specials on two of Canada's national networks. Her "Celtic Celebration" taped at the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia was widely acclaimed and was aired on PBS in the U.S. And for three years she hosted a musical variety show, "Rita and Friends" (which won Rita yet another award - the Gemini) for the national public network, CBC. Rita was proud to introduce fresh talent to the Canadian public on a weekly basis. An unexpected bonus was meeting performers she admired like Buffy St. Marie and Joni Mitchell both of whom she remembers seeing during her festival days in Ontario.
And not all opportunities coming Rita's way are directly related to her music. During the early touring days, Rita often said from the stage - "If you're ever in Big Pond, drop in for a cup of tea". And they did. And if Rita wasn't around, they'd drop a couple of tea bags in her mailbox. Thus, the idea for a tearoom was born. In 1989, she renovated an old village schoolhouse, which she originally purchased as a home, and opened Rita's Tea Room. Since then, Rita's Tea Room has expanded maintaining many jobs for people in that small community while providing an inviting, comfortable stop for tourists and local residents. The tearoom includes a gift shop, a Rita memorabilia room and serves baked goods and luncheons.
Rita's sense of people and places shows up in her music. Her mother inspired "Reason To Believe" while for her father she wrote the evocative "Old Man." Her experience while visiting an underground mine in Cape Breton stirred within her the lyrics and melody for "Working Man"...before she reached the surface. They demand that she sing "Journey to Australia" when she performs down under; the obvious "Fast Train to Tokyo" and there are songs that bring her back to that small village of her youth such as "Lupins", "Black Rock" and "Field of Daisies". Although her music reveals some of Rita's innermost reflections on life, her autobiographical book, On A Personal Note (1998, Key Porter Books), became a national best seller. It was also the basis for a play.
Given the challenges Rita MacNeil has faced, she has certainly shown up for her life. As her career grows, not only does the writing flourish, but her ability to see projects relating to her talent also surfaces. An example of this determination was her recent tour of Canada performing with some of the country's most successful symphony orchestras (leading to Rita's first live recording - 1999's 'A Night At The Orpheum'). And a current cross Canada tour with another national treasure, The Men Of The Deeps, is selling out everywhere.