Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Interview Flashback - Celtic Influences From the Great White North- A Conversation with The Rankins

I have been blessed to write contributions/reviews/interviews/opinion pieces for several country music and roots-oriented websites and publications over the years including Saving Country Music, Nashville Scene, Country California, Country Weekly, American Noise, The 9513 and Engine 145. As a regular contributor to the last two in that list, I did close to a 100 interviews with different artists- and since both of those great sites have come down, I will reprint some of those interviews here to give them a home in perpetuity. This interview was originally published in February 2010 on The 9513.

Far north, in the Canadian Maritimes, not quite to where the roads run out, lies the small community of Mabou on Cape Breton Island. One home in that village bordered next to the Community Hall which was the heart of all things musical. Music is the tie that binds people in Mabou. It is heavily influenced by the Celtic sounds brought over from sea-faring imports of generations past. Each of the twelve children of Kathleen and Buddy Rankin were encouraged and expected to be involved in the musical community including church and local fairs. Various siblings formed singing groups, but it was five of them that would make it a career. In 1989, John Morris, Raylene, Heather, Cookie and Jimmy Rankin would release their first self-titled indie album.

Five more major label albums would be released over the next decade including Fare Thee Well Love (1992), North Country (1993), Grey Dusk of Eve (1995), Endless Seasons (1995), and Uprooted (1998). Critically acclaimed and wildly embraced by several genres of Canadian music, the Rankin Family would be honored with 15 East Coast Music Awards, six Juno Awards, four SOCAN Awards and three Canadian Country Music Awards.

But in 1999, the Rankins went on an indefinite hiatus- made all the more tragic with John Morris Rankin’s death from an icy coastal road car crash in 2000. While Jimmy and Raylene recorded individual projects, no Rankin Family recording or touring would occur until 2007’s aptly named Reunion. In Winnipeg, the sold-out audience gave the remaining four members, who toured with John Morris’ daughter Molly Rankin, a standing ovation before the concert started. Reunion would bring the group their 16th East Coast Music Award for Best Roots/Traditional Group Recording of the Year.

In 2009, The Rankins returned to the studio and recorded another new album called These Are The Moments. Reflective of the group’s unwavering faith and optimism during these uncertain modern times, it is filled with that unique Celtic-influenced harmony-drenched sound that filled that Community Hall so many years ago.

The 9513 had an opportunity to talk with Jimmy and Heather Rankin about their Celtic influences, the ladies’ Red Shoe Pub, Jimmy’s upcoming Olympic performance and their latest album.

Ken Morton, Jr.- The Rankins have won several Canadian Country Music Awards, and even more Roots music awards, but have many more influences on your music. For someone who perhaps hasn’t heard a Rankins album, how would you describe it?

Jimmy Rankin- That’s a hard one. Over the years, I’ve been asked to describe it and categorize it. Maybe contemporary folk? There are just so many different styles in there. There’s Celtic, and traditional and singer/songwriter. There’s original country and a little bit of pop and folk. I really don’t know how to classify it. And that, of course, is one of the challenging things we ran into over the years.

KMJ- Heather, how would you answer that question?

Heather Rankin- It’s just Rankin music. It is hard to describe. There is no category that it falls into. It has influences from country music, folk, traditional and it’s one of the problems that we had when we first started playing in the community in which we were raised. I remember when we were selling CD’s when we were playing community shows out of the back of our cars. And after awhile, we were selling so many records, it finally got the attention of the record people in Toronto. When we signed with EMI Canada, it was difficult for them to put us in a category, so people just started calling it Canadian country. It’s something that’s most appealing to our music, it doesn’t just fall into one category. So to answer your question, or not answer it, I don’t know to answer that question.

KMJ- I think you did, actually. I know you guys started more Celtic with your music when you first got started and have evolved to a more mainstream sound over the years- or at least that’s my impression. Has that been a conscious decision or something that happened just based on your travel and expansion as artists?

JR- We played as a band from the time we were kids, you know? We would play around the county in Cape Breton where we’re from. We were a dance band and we played in the old dance halls there. That’s really where we cut our teeth in the music business. This was back in the 70’s and early 80’s. My brother played professionally with some fiddle music there. And that’s very much part of the culture there in Cape Breton. We sang other songs which were very traditional as well. And it was a dance, so we played old rock and roll and country music. We played anything to make people dance. We always had a big cross section of music. When we started making recordings in the late 1980’s, we wanted to bring to a recording what we did in our band in those early days- which was a cross-styling of different styles of music. Over the years, the Rankins records varied more from the traditional sound, but we’ve always tried to do different styles of music in our recording. Maybe we have evolved like that but we’ve always had a strong traditional element to our group. I think it’s always rung through all of our writing.

HR- I don’t think it was a conscious thing. It’s interesting that you hear it that way. Perhaps it comes from working with different producers and different players. When we originally started, 80% of our selections were traditional- probably because we were steeped in that from a very young age. We were throwing in material that we were doing for the first 20 years of our lives. As the years went on, we would do our songwriting- particularly Jimmy- and it’s kind of turned around to 80% original. Maybe that’s where that change has come from. I don’t think it was a conscious thing. It just happens after people started writing.

KMJ- You guys trade lead vocals pretty seamlessly. That’s pretty rare these days. How do you go about choosing who sings what?

JR- There’s really four lead vocalists in the Rankin Family band. There are my three sisters of course and myself. When we go out on tour- and the last three or four years, we’ve been doing these cross-country tours- we try to feature everybody in the set list. But there are favorites that fans want to hear that are staples of the set list. When we were making a recording, we try to feature everybody at least twice on the record and have a group song that gets everybody involved. That’s always been just a trademark of the Rankins. That’s really just it.

HR- Anytime we’ve gotten together to do a record, we’ve each brought in a handful of tunes. It was somewhat democratic that we’ve tried to select each person’s best tune out of everything else that went on the record. As time has gone on, it’s been more about picking the strongest song- perhaps the group tune- rather than being more even. It’s always been pretty democratic, though.

KMJ- You had a new album in 2009 called These Are The Moments. Besides the obvious fact that it’s a song on the album, why did you pick that as an album title?

JR- It was really just a lyric from a song that I had written. I think we were trying to make a CD that was, at the time, were songs full of inspiration, songs that were in the moment and full of hope. That’s one of the lyrics that our producer Frank Davies thought would be an excellent title. Each of us thought, “Sure, that sounds like a really good title.”

HR- I think at the time, the world has been going through a financial downturn. There are Canadian men and women soldiers overseas dying every day. There are a lot of sad things happening in the world and we felt that we should try to look at things in a positive light and see how truly fortunate we are. We need to recognize that we need to take advantage of the good life that we lead and recognize how fortunate we are. We need to live each moment.

KMJ- American fans will recognize two of the songwriters in Jim Brickman and Sarah Buxton. What made you choose the two songs written by those two artists?

JR- The label we were working with in Canada wanted to do a record with a contemporary sound. Frank Davies enlisted a guy that knows a lot of these songwriters. They brought these songs to the table and it really just happened to be that they’re really good songs. That recording session was a combination of Rankin songs and some of those really good writers. Victoria Shaw is one of the writers as well.

KMJ- I know you guys reworked a couple of your old classics for the album as well.

JR- They wanted to rerelease a couple of songs like “Rise Again” and “Fare Thee Well” and “Feel The Same Way.” They wanted to remix these great old songs and bring them up to date sonically. You have to remember they were recorded back in 1989 or 1990. We revisited them and remixed them and I think brought the vocals to the front more. They shine just a bit more.

HR- We felt that those songs were very fitting with the message of the newer tunes. We were hoping to expose our music a little more to the American market. People in the production market hoped to showcase us to America a little more than we have in the past. It seemed very fitting to include a couple of our old inspirational songs and fit them in with these new songs of inspiration.

KMJ- Jimmy, how do you see your solo work different from your work with the Rankin Family?

JR- Essentially, my solo career was just to keep me occupied the last ten years. I took what we did with the Rankin Family, which was singing and playing guitar and songwriting, and applied it to my solo records. That’s pretty much it. I’m a songwriter. Most all of the songs on the records have been an extension of my songwriting, or sometimes songwriting with other people.

KMJ- Heather, while Jimmy and Raylene have done some solo work, you and Cookie have chosen not to. Any reasoning behind that?

HR- I never saw myself as a solo singer. I always felt that I was a cog in the Rankin wheel. It was never anything I was interested in. My interests have really been in acting. It’s something I studied in University. I got a degree in theater. I’ve pursued that on my own. And then I went into a show with my sisters Cookie and Raylene and we did a Christmas record. And each Christmas season, we do a show in and around that. We also bought a pub up in Mabou, Cape Breton where we were born and raised.

KMJ- That’s called the Red Shoe Pub, I understand.

HR- That’s right. We feature local traditional music there seven days a week at some point in the day. It’s not all day long- usually it’s at supper time. Those things have drawn my energies. As far as a solo career, it’s not anything I ever aspired to.

KMJ- Does Jimmy have some elaborate concert contract and rider each time he performs in your pub?

HR- (Laughing) No, he’s been very good to come and play a tune or two. Cookie, Raylene, and I have done the same. We’ve actually never all played there together at the same time. None of us actually live up there now. We do all tend to go back there and spend time there. It’s a seasonal operation.

KMJ- Was that always a dream to own a pub?

HR- It was something crazy that we did. If you ever drive up the west coast of Cape Breton from the highway, it’s very beautiful. And you’ll meet some of the finest people in the world there and hear some of the best music in the world. But it is very rural and there isn’t a lot to do there except for the summer when there’s square dances and community events. You hear traditional music. A person had taken an old general store in our community and converted it into a pub. He had it for about five years and it gained a reputation for a place to go to hear traditional music. Unfortunately, he wasn’t successful in keeping it open for business and it closed. It was closed for two years. Every time we would go back there, we’d see tourists looking through the windows or front door. The three of us along with another sister couldn’t stand to see this vibrant little place of music not survive. So we did a crazy thing and got together and bought it. And for the first seasons, I managed it. And that was an even crazier thing to do. Fortunately, we succeeded. And now we have very capable people to run it and it goes very smoothly. Tons of people come from all over.

KMJ- Jimmy, you’re going out to sing in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, I understand. 

JR- Yeah, I’m going out there to do a couple shows there. That’s correct. You’ve done your homework.

KMJ- That’s got to be pretty exciting to be there on a world stage in your homeland of Canada. 

JR- I’m looking forward to it. It should be a lot of fun. I’m known as a singer/songwriter so those shows will just be me and a guitar player going through some Rankins stuff and some of my stuff- just my normal set list. It will be good.

KMJ- Looking back a bit, you guys decided to hang things up in 1999 together as a band. Why the break and why the reunion again nearly a decade later?

JR- When we set out to make recordings back in 1989, we started out grass roots without a manager or a record label or any knowledge of the music business. Growing up playing music locally, our goal wasn’t necessarily to get a record deal and tour and see the world. And I think we were thinking five years. As it turned out, it took off and kept us very busy for ten years recording and television specials and everything that goes with it. In those ten years, we went through everything you go through in the music business. Managers. Record labels. We learned all that. I think everyone thought it was just time. We saw major changes in the business at that time. We just decided it was time to hang up the gloves indefinitely. Tragically, later that year, my brother, John Morris, was killed in a car accident. I think at that time, everybody thought that was the finale for the Rankins. But in 1997, a promoter we worked with out west during our earlier career asked if we’d do a reunion tour. He thought there was a demand for us out there. People wanted to hear us and hear those old songs. It was just too good not to be heard. I got everybody back together and we gradually got it back together. It was without my brother, of course. But we found some people to do his job. We started on the west coast of Canada and headed east and amazingly played to sold-out houses everywhere we went. And that went so well, we did it again. People wanted to hear it. And we shot some television specials while we were out there. And it’s something we revisit every other year and do some dates. It’s really fun. And it just so happens that we’ve been placing some CD’s as well. Does that answer your question?

KMJ- It does. And actually leads me to my next question. What’s next for the Rankins in 2010 and beyond?

JR- There’s talk of going out and doing an acoustic tour where it’s just myself and another musician and my sisters- just doing that acoustic folk with a focus on the vocals. We’d like to do that in smaller halls. That’s what we’re talking about in 2010. We’re just getting that started.

KMJ- And how about for Heather Rankin?

HR- After 1999 when we quit, we really felt like we were on a treadmill. We had started to lose sight of what we were doing this for. People really want to hear this music. It seems like now we’re taking this bi-annually. Hopefully the acoustic show with evolve and happen this summer and every holiday, I do the Christmas show with my sisters. Once in awhile, I’ll do some auditions for film or the odd musical. And there’s the pub that keeps us busy with hiring staff and doing that stuff year to year. I’m happy with the pace I’m living right now. Who knows what the future holds? For now, I’m content with touring with the family every other year or so.

KMJ- I’ve got one last question for you. What is country music to the Rankin Family?

JR- Well obviously, I’m talking to a website focusing mainly on country music. Country music now is really changing as far as I can see. Country music has always been about common people. Traditional country music has been about bluegrass and people like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and those guys. Our music has been called country music if that’s what you’re referring to. What is country music to me? It is four chords and a good song. I don’t know. If you’re asking what country music I like, it’s people like Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams. I think country music now is more about being a pop song with a country story. Country radio, for the most part, is pop music with a country story. Whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing, I don’t know. There’s definitely some incredible talent out there. There are people that are holding the old guard like Alan Jackson. I’m not totally up on country music, though. I know a good song, that’s it.

HR- I think some people think country music is what you hear on the radio. Like Carrie Underwood. She’s a beautiful singer, sings fantastic songs, and a beautiful looking person. To some people, that is country music. But isn’t country music singing personal things about the place you come from and the people you know, the life you lead, the history of your place? That, to me, is country music. Hank Williams didn’t always sing about love. He sang about a lot of things in life- good and bad. That is country music to me.

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