Cape Breton soul

One August evening in 1999, Rita MacNeil had an experience few of us will ever match. She watched as Flying On Her Own, the story of her life, unfolded on a Sackville, New Brunswick, stage. “It was very strange,” she recalls, “very eerie.”

Then adds Cape Breton’s most celebrated singer-songwriter modestly, “I didn’t think the story was anything earth-shattering – just something you could pretty well put anyone into. It was about one person, but so many of us could be there, you know.”

True enough, but then few among us could bare the details of our lives and move so many hearts. “The thing that’s remarkable,” says playwright Charlie Rhindress, co-director of Sackville’s Live Bait Theatre, “is that she can touch on the specific, but it becomes universal.” In her songs, listeners recognize situations or relationships – and emotions — they’ve experienced.

“If you look through the lyrics to her songs, it’s always about believing in dreams,” notes Rhindress. And he should know. He spent years studying MacNeil’s music, interviews and press clippings, planning for this night.

“I could see that Rita was one of those people who didn’t settle, who ver said ‘Okay, I’m going to give up.’ She stuck with the dream — and she won a Juno award as Most Promising Female Vocalist at age 42. It makes you realize you don’t ever have to give up.

Her tea room
MacNeil’s celebrity certainly draws people from far afield. Stop at Rita’s Tea Room, the charming restaurant opened in 1982 at Big Pond, N.S. — managed by her daughter, Laura Lewis – and check the large binder that serves as a guest book. It holds a month and a half’s worth of signatures – a two-inch-deep stack of paper, inscribed on both sides. The names are from all over North America, some from overseas.

Open seasonally, from June 1 to mid-October each year, the Tea Room is especially popular with 50-plus tour groups in the autumn, when the weather has cooled and Cape Breton’s trees explode with colour.

The original schoolhouse had been converted to a modest home by the time MacNeil had scraped enough money together to put a down payment on it in the early 1980s. A total renovation in 1986 gutted the building and added the gift shop, gallery, kitchen, a second tea room and a deck. At the time, funding from governments that recognized the tourism value of the Tea Room led to controversy, even protests.

These days, life is full and mostly fun for MacNeil. With Laura handling the Tea Room and Wade, who was always interested in her career, now her manager, she’s confident things are running smoothly. The two are hard workers, she says, who don’t take anything for granted. “They’re nice people to know — and not just because they’re children of mine,” she adds earnestly.

Enjoys beach house
Her heart truly lies in her birthplace, Big Pond, the small community about half an hour’s drive from Sydney. “It’s always a thrill to perform there,” she says of the annual Big Pond Folk Festival. “I stand on that stage and I see the hills and I think of my parents who are just over the road in that graveyard. There’s just such a sense of connection, a sense of sadness, a sense of joy,” she smiles, tears brimming in her eyes. 

MacNeil recently sold off some waterfront lots at her Big Pond farm. “It’s turned out to be quite a good investment,” she remarks.

She kept a unique parcel for herself, moving her beach house to a pond formed where gravel was extracted from the site years ago. A thin strip of land separates it from the Bras D’Or Lake beyond. Her refuge was once an industrial trailer used as the kitchen and gift shop for the Tea Room during renovation. Its large screened porch faces the water.

She’s adamantly opposed to landscaping or otherwise fancying up the place, saying, “This is a place to enjoy, not to worry about mowing a lawn.” The contrast between this secluded area and the nearby point of land where the beach house had been fascinates her.

“I didn’t realize how sheltered it is here. There’s so much more wildlife, so many birds,” she says with pleasure.

The beach house is a special place she enjoys sharing with Laura’s two youngsters — a boy, seven, and a girl, four. They love floating over the pond with their grandmother on her “Huckleberry Finn” raft, a converted deck now buoyed by Styrofoam floats.
“You can see I believe in recycling,” says MacNeil, grinning.

Still writing songs
At 56, the songwriter feels her creativity is stronger than ever and shows no signs of waning. Amazingly, words and music come to her at the same time – a good thing, since she neither reads nor writes music and prefers to hum her compositions into her answering machine.

Summer on the shores of the Bras d’Or inspires her. “I was so excited,” she says of her writing spree in the summer of 1999. “I thought, ‘Oh God, the well’s not dry yet, folks’.” She’ll record some of those songs on a new CD early in 2001, and has plans for a children’s CD. “I don’t think age slows you down at all, in certain ways,” she concludes.

She tours regularly with the group she regards as a treasure – Cape Breton’s choir of coal miners, the Men of the Deeps. Mining the Soul, the CD she recorded with them was released last year.

The tour ended December 12 in Vancouver and MacNeil flew home to Sydney and her favourite time of year – Christmas.

Touring in northern Quebec
Touring occupies a large part of Rita MacNeil’s professional life, and a trip to Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec in August 1999 left the singer-songwriter filled with excitement. 

“Am I ever glad I went,” she says. “It was so warm. All sorts of people came to the little airport – grandmothers and mothers with babies strapped in, men in their hunting gear. I was so surprised. They have their own Inuit culture and this was their big festival. And they have so many wonderful performers. I was just so touched that they wanted me there.”

It’s just such moments that mean most to MacNeil. “This is really what it’s about,” she says. “It’s not about record sales. It’s getting together and seeing people, being with them and sharing what you have – looking up and really seeing them, too. It’s not about yourself.”

It’s this desire to connect with people’s hearts that makes Rita MacNeil an enduring favourite with audiences.