Though virtually unknown in the United States, songstress Rita MacNeil is an admirable musical ambassador for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and brings good, clean family entertainment to the stage.
As Rita MacNeil moved through the hotel lobby in London, Ontario, three people stopped to tell her how much they love her music. She shyly and quickly thanked them and headed toward the elevator with Didi, one of her pet Yorkies, under arm. But though MacNeil is considered a music legend and is loved throughout Canada, one would be hard pressed to buy any of her CDs in the United States, except through her Web site. Border's computers list some of her albums but can't even place a special order.
After touring with Mac Neil for a couple days earlier this year, I had to conclude--as many have--that it all comes down to externals. She is a large woman by anyone's standards, and she has a faint but noticeable cleft palate. In an industry that places so much value on appearance, it seems these two blemishes have been enough to hinder American bookings and CD sales, despite her wide-ranging musical talent. MacNeil is not completely unknown in the United States, however, due to Canadians who live here and her highly rated CBC specials, which are picked up in the northern border states.
If given the chance, perhaps a wider American audience might be as forgiving as Canadian ones, but so far most Americans have been denied the chance. When MacNeil was honored to sing the Canadian national anthem at the 1993 World Series in Toronto's Skydome, the American network covering the games decided not to include the anthems, even though Michael Bolton sang The Star Spangled Banner. To add injury to insult, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlon blasted Canadian officials for choosing a corpulent singer who needed to be "transported to the field by forklift." The Nova Scotia legislature demanded an apology, which Conlon declined to offer. But MacNeil got the last laugh: When approached about singing for another World Series, she answered, "Yes, I would do it, but on one condition--that they drive me out onto the field on a forklift."
MacNeil knows that the music industry is a very image-conscious one, and she has worked throughout her twenty-year career to overcome preconceptions. "We all look different in this world and should have the right to do what we love to do, no matter what," she expounds.
MacNeil started her singing career with her extended family, who immigrated to Canada from Scotland's Isle of Barra four generations ago. When family and friends would get together for "kitchen parties," someone would play an instrument and everybody would sing. By the age of 6, she realized that music was what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
She left her childhood home in Big Pond, Nova Scotia, at 17 to seek success in Toronto. In the early years, she played in the clubs, pubs, and bars where the people were willing to listen, and as she later put it in a song memorializing this time, "The music of a thousand nights" filled the air. During the Toronto years, she married and had two children, Laura and Wade, but the marriage broke up six years later, forcing her to support her children by working alternately as a janitor, sales clerk, or waitress, when singing wouldn't pay the bills or she was too shy to ask for money due.
In 1978 she moved to Ottawa but survived there only for two years before homesickness swept her back to Big Pond. MacNeil became an "overnight" success after giving an amazing seventy-two performances during Expo 86 in Vancouver. When a Vancouver reporter wrote, "For God's sake, you must hear Rita MacNeil," the lines started forming early each day for tickets, and they've been forming ever since.
The next year, winning a Juno--Canada's top musical honor--for "Most Promising Female Artist" increased her exposure. In 1990, she moved up a notch to win a Juno for "Best Female Vocalist. …