Rita MacNeil, Cape Breton’s first lady of song, who recorded 24 albums and was known for such hits as "Flying on Your Own," died April 16 due to complications following surgery, according to MacNeil's website. She was 68.
The multi-platinum folk singer from Big Pond, N.S., had an influence that reached much farther than Cape Breton Island, though MacNeil often sang about her love for her home and family. Most notable are her lyrics for "Home I'll Be," in which she sang, "You’re as peaceful as a clear day./ You’re as rugged as the seas./ I caress you, oh, Cape Breton, in my dreams."
ritaPlay Rita MacNeil's "Knowing When To Go," "Never Under 85" and "Floating." Add the songs to your playlist via MacNeil's artist page.
It was a message that resonated across the country, winning her three Juno Awards, a Gemini for her CBC variety show Rita & Friends, as well as several East Coast Music and Country Music awards.
Artists were quick to express their gratitude to the star.
“The cool thing about Rita MacNeil is that she was supportive of everyone," says Tom Power, the host of CBC Radio 2's Morning and Deep Roots and a member of the Dardanelles.
“Rita MacNeil is one of the artists that built the East Coast music industry. You get the feeling that without her there would not have been an Ashley MacIsaac or a Great Big Sea or a Jenn Grant. This isn’t to say they were influenced by her music but she, as well as Anne Murray, showed you could come from the East Coast, stay in the East Coast and have a career. And that was all the inspiration a lot of artists needed. And Rita MacNeil proved that."
"Rita was the real deal," says Jimmy Rankin. "Genuine, kind-hearted and an incredible talent who opened the doors for and inspired a generation of East coast artists. That she won her first Juno at 42 and then went on to sell millions of records is a testament to her abilities as a singer and songwriter. Her music is simply honest and soulful. Rita's success laid the foundation for The Rankin Family and a host of artists."
Rose Cousins said MacNeil's voice was a cornerstone of her musical upbringing.
"My sister and I would blast our Rita MacNeil 'Flying on your Own' cassette and sing at the tops of our lungs," she says. "She was a true East Coaster, a megastar from a tiny place with her own TV show. Rita was definitely an early inspiration for me. Her fame is sewn into the seams of our East Coast pride. We recently recognized her contribution to the music community at the 25th East Coast Music Awards where we were all mourning the loss of Stompin' Tom and I just can't believe she's gone now as well. It's devastating. She is a legend and will be deeply missed."
The Canadian icon's first Juno came in 1987 for most promising female vocalist. She was 42.
"I have always given the advice to young people to stay true to their dreams, and music is a wonderful outlet to express emotions. Follow your heart and your music," she told CBC Music in March, advice that she obviously took herself.
MacNeil was also known to fans in Canada, the U.K. and Australia for her songs, such as “Working Man,” "Reason to Believe” and “I’ll Accept the Rose Tonight,” but it was 1987's "Flying on Your Own," a crossover Top 40 ode to strength and empowerment, that proved to be her biggest hit.
Anne Murray, who covered "Flying on Your Own" the following year, said in a statement that she is "deeply saddened by the loss of a dear sweet woman and a gifted singer-songwriter who represented women and her beloved Nova Scotia so eloquently in her songs."
MacNeil was also a member of the Order of Canada, was awarded the Order of Nova Scotia and received five honorary doctorates. True to her small-town roots, she opened Rita’s Tea Room in 1986 in Big Pond, and was known to frequently visit.
MacNeil will be remembered by her daughter Laura and son Wade, her grandchildren, friends and the millions of Canadians who were inspired by a woman not afraid to follow her dreams.
"To hear from someone in the audience that a certain song you wrote, like 'Flying On Your Own,' has inspired them to move forward after going through a difficult time is wonderful," she told CBC Music. "I have been blessed to hear those words many times, and it is a most humbling feeling."
- With files from Jennifer Van Evra
Guest interview: Rita MacNeil
Success, sexism and making it in music: Rita MacNeil, Terri Clark, Jill Barber, more share their tales
East Coast Music Awards celebrate Stompin' Tom and the next generation of stars