Let’s be honest. For a good number of Canadians under twenty years of age, the mere mention of the Rankin Family causes a predicable moan and retort before a lumping together of their work with other East Coast musicians like Anne Murray and Rita McNeil supposedly forced on the rest of Canada: they’re lame. Their particular blend of folk, country, and we’re-at-a-ceilidh family fun is a tough sell to a younger crowd, with the assumed exception of those who grew up on Cape Breton Island.
It was on a road trip with my family in the late 1990s, headed north through the Cariboo, when I felt as though I had no choice but to listen to the Rankin Family. I had forgotten most of my CDs at home. I had listened and listened again to Big Shiny Tunes 2, Republica’s eponymous debut, and Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase. In the spirit of full disclosure, I had even listened to my brother’s copy of Ray of Light: These were desperate times. With hours to kill, the only choice left was to turn to my mother’s collection.
In a CD carrier, among a strangely substantial amount of musicals, I found Collection, a compilation released by the Rankins in 1996. With a sneer I popped it into my Discman. My reaction to the first eleven songs was not unexpected. This is not to say that they were bad. These gentle songs, such as “Rise Again,” “North Country,” and “Gillis Mountain,” reflect tenderly on home and love. However, upon a recent listening in preparation of this review, what I still find lacking is an intensity that does not surface until the compilation’s penultimate offering, “Fare Thee Well Love”, which too is undermined by a production that softens and stifles any sort of unbridled push against those listening all-too-comfortably. The Rankins are too polished. They lack punch.
Consequently, the live performance that concludes the compilation was (to a road-tripping teenager) and is (to a stunted graduate student) the welcome betrayal. Distractedly floating after taking in the compilation’s gentle wanderings, we are immediately hauled in by Jimmy Rankin’s spoken whisper: “Picture this ladies and gentlemen / It’s fifty years ago on a small country farm / Johnny McMaster’s place / And it’s Friday night / You’ve just finished ten hot days of back-breaking labor / And the hay, the hay is finally in”. He is accompanied minimally by held chords, fleeting touches of keys, and chance flickers of sound; silences are only filled by those in attendance at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre. We are entranced and transported, made eager to participate as moonshine-drunk workers relaxing around the kerosene lantern to which Rankin makes reference, in what becomes an exhausted yet ecstatic forum for the sharing and enjoyment of music, story, and community.
By the time the audience has been appropriately charmed and fired up and the singing begins, it feels as though the characters Rankin sings about are just as much our own friends and next-door neighbors. It’s appropriate to laugh, smile, and grimace when learning about those featured: “Look up yonder it’s old MacPhee / He’s having a few he can hardly see / Wrapped his buggy around a tree / Someone call the Mounties”. The chorus, handled by Jimmy along with Cookie, Heather, and Raylene, accentuates the blurred but lasting nature of local legend: “Raisin’ the jar and raisin’ hell / There’s plenty of stories that they will tell / Some are born of true detail / Some are purely fiction”.
There is a snarl here, cradled by participative and achingly-sustained instrumental performance, not found on the studio recordings that make up the other songs on Collection. This lack of calm production renders what the Rankins are singing about – friends, place, and history – overtly accessible and all the more affective, permeating the music itself. The lengthy interlude that precedes the fourth verse is particularly given over to the compelling performances of John Morris Rankin (on piano) and Howie MacDonald (on fiddle). Even Jimmy’s should-be-cheesy “Let’s get nasty!” and “Go Johnny Go!” don’t miss.
By the time we burst out of the interlude, it’s surprising how strong the connection is to the storytelling: “Danny Wright had a light / Burning bright every night / Waiting for the fish to bite / Along the shores of ‘Cocomagh”. Yet, after one more verse (gorgeously hard to fully make out due to Jimmy Rankin’s still-needed roar), a snap to hush, much like his introduction, is brought about and a lyric, growing in volume, is repeated to conclude the performance: “I’ll go home, I’ll go home / Full of the devil and full of the rum / I’ll go home, I’ll go home / We’ll all go in the morning”. Much like those semi-fictional neighbors and revelers, we’re left still exhausted but with, curiously important, an enduring smile, unnoticeable as it may be, for having been made enraptured and enthusiastic participants, if only in imagination.
“Mull River Shuffle” (Live) – The Rankin Family
Music and lyrics by Jimmy Rankin with borrowings from the Golden Rod Jig (Wilfred Gills), the Ingonish Jig (Traditional), and the Andy de Jarlis’ (Traditional)
B. Stafford is the 14th Floor’s Annex-based music critic.