by Iain Kenneth MacLeod
What can be said about the Rankins that hasn’t been said before? It’s not like they are new to the game, they’ve been recording for over 10 years and have probably been asked every irrelevant question imaginable. After flipping through a novel’s worth of press clippings for the month of May, I came to the conclusion that I was walking down a well-worn path. The idea of breaking new ground with this interview was a fantasy, but in other ways, I felt that I was missing something, that there was something there for me.
I knew one of the sisters would be calling me on a Thursday afternoon, but not which one. Would it be Heather? Could it be Cookie, or would I speak with Raylene? Grasping for straws, I tried to develop some hard line of questioning. I could look at the marketing implications of changing their name from “The Rankin Family” to “The Rankins”, but that seemed redundant since most folks have been calling them that on their own. I could emphasize the fact that they beat Ashely to the punch by cussin’ on a record (yep, you can hear “shit” on “Long Way To Go”), but I dismissed that as being too Frank for me. I could try to get and explanation of the May 19, 1998 quote from the Globe & Mail that states “…nobody drives a new car”, but I would hate to find out that such tremendous pop success leaves little material possessions in its wake. I could attempt to explain the bizarre references to “edge and grit, funky street beats and talk-to-the-hand attitude” from their bio, but I’ll leave regurgitation of the press kit to the Post. As the time for the phone to ring got closer, I was feeling less willing to really peel back the layers and get at the core of what it was to be a Rankin.
It turned out to be Raylene’s voice on the other end of the phone, and she seemed pretty excited to be playing on the boardwalk with Gordie Sampson and Bruce Guthro. “Really, there is no other place to be in the summer,” she said of returning to Cape Breton for the Action Week kickoff shows in Sydney.
It’s been two or three years since the band played in this town and it feels like an eternity. It’s not that they’ve been avoiding Cape Breton, in fact they played Port Hawkesbury last summer, it’s just that it’s been a while since they released and toured in support of Endless Seasons. Although some might think that the time between Endless Seasons and Uprooted was some sort of splendid hibernation for the band, it was far from being a year off.
“When people don’t see you, they think you are not working,” explains Raylene. Besides the obvious roles and responsibilities of motherhood (Raylene’s daughter Alexandra has already crossed the country at the age of six months since the tour started in Vancouver), the family members and bandmates have released a Greatest Hits collection of their music, recorded with the Chieftains, worked on a television production, and recorded a Christmas album. Not exactly a vacation! These days the band can also be found on CMT lip-synching to “Maybe You’re Right”, the first video released from Uprooted. It was filmed in Toronto by Blackwalk Productions also responsible for John Allan Cameron’s “Getting Dark Again” video. The latest tour, for the Rankins’ seventh album (eighth if you count Do You Hear – Christmas with Heather, Cookie & Raylene Rankin), has been “working across the country since May” and has received “a lovely, wonderful reception” noted Raylene.
Uprooted is a well-polished hybrid of the organic Celtic music that is indigenous to our island and the shiny contemporary that is all over our airwaves. The fusion of different cultures is all over the place these days, and the Rankins have a wide range of musical peers, from the Corrs to Leahy, successfully bridging the gap from traditional family band to contemporary pop stars, but it is not guaranteed recipe for success. There are always naysayers and stumbling blocks that come out of nowhere. So, how do the Rankins succeed where so many others fail? What is in the water in Mabou?
The Rankins have been able to follow in the footsteps of some great role models, such as Mary Black and her sister Frances. “We are always influenced by the people we meet,” says Raylene. “Our early arrangements were Steeleye Span-ish.” In an interview with Profile magazine, Jimmy addressed the Celtic overkill backlash: “There’s a lot of people trying to be innovative with Celtic music who aren’t doing a real good job—and that makes for mediocre music. Just because you put a rock beat to a traditional song doesn’t make it innovative. To be innovative, you’ve got to have respect for the music’s roots and understand its character.” Since I wasn’t talking to Jimmy, I couldn’t get him to name names.
This time around, the family enlisted the ears of super producer George Massenburg. He has quite a pedigree of projects behind him, from James Taylor to Earth Wind & Fire and Bonnie Raitt. For all you country folk, his name also graces the pre-Lilith Fair girl power TRIO (Dolly, Linda, Emmylou) album of the ‘80s. He had seen the Rankins perform on ABC’s Good Morning America, and was suitably impressed.
“Their music just got to me,” commented Massenburg in a Billboard interview several months back. “I love music with strong cultural references.” George Massenburg is a sound designer whose style premeditatively emphasizes the song’s direction before just jamming it out in the studio. He is a tech wizard. When asked if they will work together again in the future, Raylene cautioned, “it’s hard to say…the trend is to try different things and stay fresh.”
Raylene noted that after having a few months now to listen to the album away from the confines of the studio, she can hear it being akin to a real life Jacob’s Ladder. The film, starring Tim Robbins, that she speaks of was a trippy account of a veteran’s downward spiral into paranoia. Sound dark and brooding? Well, what she was getting at was that the album, like the film, reveals snippets of reality in a life, not necessarily in chronological order, but full of the truths and traditions that we all take for granted. As a whole, she sees the album as moving in several directions for the beginning of “Movin’ On” to the fade of “Farewell to Lochaber”. Uprooted deals with the past, present and the future.
After I listened to it a couple of times, I was most interested to find that Hanson’s and Leonard Cohen’s string arranger was brought in, Mr. David Campbell. Not only has his name graced several contemporary pop albums, but he aided in the biological creation of one of this decade’s most original artists, Beck.
If Jimmy is the primary songwriter, responsible for what could be a Hootie single “Let it Go” and the strange collaboration with Kevin MacMichael of the Cutting Crew and Jim Corrs on beats “Weddings, Wakes, & Funerals”, Raylene and John Morris (with support from Howie MacDonald) are the traditional backbone of the outfit. While Jimmy seems to be reinterpreting the old country styles of Jimmy Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Snow, Raylene is the enchanting voice behind the Gaelic ballads “O Tha Mo Dhuil Ruit” (Oh How I Love Thee) and “An Innis Aigh” (The Happy Isle) and John Morris arranged “The Parlour Medley” and the “Greenburg Medley”. He also continues to call Cape Breton his home, while the others make the usual pilgrimages as any red-blooded Caper does. Although four-fifths of the band live in Halifax, their connections to the island are still strong. With the loss of their mother Kathleen last fall, the trips to the island had become that much more important and frequent.
Back at home, the music still starts in the kitchen before moving to a community or parish hall. Around these parts. I am sure there are several fans and friends that wish the whole pop/fusion phenomenon would just fall by the wayside. But how does one truly sort the “compost heap of cultural backgrounds” in which musicians, singers, and songwriters of the day are currently? I guess all that the traditionalist can do is keep waiting for a John Morris solo album. Unless the suits and record execs still think that strict Celtic music will confine their artists to the pubs. I say tell it to the Chieftains.
Raylene said she was thrilled to be a part of Paddy Moloney’s Fire in the Kitchen project that linked the Chieftains up with some heavy hitters from the East Coast. “It had been in the works for awhile, but he always had three projects on the go.” Paddy now has his own Unisphere imprint to release these various CDs and Fire in the Kitchen is sure to bring a lot of talented musicians to a wider, international audience. In fact, that is the album that’s been getting the most attention in her CD player.
And watch for the Rankins to return to CBC TV this fall as Heather, Cookie and Raylene host Celtic Tides, a documentary style program tracing the history of Celtic music. It is a high quality show with some impressive guests and as Raylene added, “There are several quotes from major acts like Altan, Mary Black…I was really impressed with the roster.” It was made by Hallway Productions, the people behind the Rankin’s Backstage Pass that aired on CBC awhile back and has been rerun on various PBS stations across America. This type of programming sounds like their specialty and I would keep an eye on their work in the future.
A lot of artists seem to whine about lack of airplay and videoplay. If you don’t fit in the category dictated by Billboard, Music Music, or modern commercial radio, you can be left out to dry with all the different critically acclaimed albums. With 2 million units sold, I don’t think that is something the Rankins worry about too much. Expanding their audience and markets are the key to a continued success as they make inroads across the Atlantic. South of the border is another story. Cracking the US market seems to be the next logical step, and Raylene confidently noted that “We have been chipping at it for several years now. Like Natalie said in the [Celtic Tides] special, ‘those that did not grow up with the culture have to be hit in the face with it’. Crowds are smaller when you are playing in areas that you are not established in. You are really starting at square one. But there is a certain intimacy that isn’t present at the larger venues.” And for the music that thrived at home in the kitchen, an intimate setting is just the right place for the music to start before taking off again.