Known as the First Lady of Cape Breton, singer-songwriter Rita MacNeil is the newest inductee into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF). Her signature classic song, Flying on Her Own, will receive that honour during the 2021 East Coast Music Awards, May 6. A special tribute is planned for the Awards Show, taking place in the songwriter’s hometown of Cape Breton, NS. The induction presentation will include a musical tribute performed by a cast of former bandmates, friends and more. MacNeil’s legacy will then be indelibly remembered with a permanent place in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame at the National Music Centre in Calgary.
MacNeil’s induction announcement was timed with the eighth anniversary of her untimely death, age 68, on April 16, 2013, after complications with surgery.
A CSHF press release noted that "some of MacNeil’s best-known songs often spoke of Nova Scotia, however, her cross-genre appeal and immense talent resonated with Canadians across the country and globally. With her shy persona, MacNeil endeared herself to grassroots audiences nationwide and enjoyed commercial success despite not conforming to the music industry’s expectations. Her melody-driven, heartfelt songwriting resisted classification - sometimes country, sometimes hinting of folk, gospel and blues.
“Through her lyrics and songwriting, Rita allowed us into her heart and soul,” said Vanessa Thomas, Executive Director, Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. “The love between songwriter and audience was mutual. Rita didn’t sing to people, she sang for people; and her audiences, in return, gave her strength to overcome her shyness and stage anxiety. There are few artists who have such an intimate and authentic connection with their fans, and that bond lives on through her songs.”
MacNeil became active in the early 1970s writing feminist protest songs. Gradually, her songwriting evolved into a broader folk-pop autobiographical style, and she performed for rallies, at coffeehouses, folk clubs, the Mariposa and other folk festivals. She recorded three albums independently beginning with Born a Woman (1975), but it was Flying On Your Own, her 1986 debut album with Virgin Records, that became her commercial breakthrough. With the successful single Flying On Your Own and the double-platinum album of the same name, MacNeil won her first Juno Award in 1987 as Most Promising Female Vocalist, and ECMA Female Recording of the Year in 1989-1990 and 1993.
Her 1988 song, Working Man, was inspired after a visit to Sydney Mines, and written as a tribute to the hardships and sacrifices of coal miners in Cape Breton – but it would serve an anthem for coal miners everywhere. The song, which she performed with the coal miners choir, The Men of the Deeps, soared to No. 11 in the U.K. She would continue to regularly perform with The Men of the Deeps, including at the 1989 Junos.
MacNeil became Canada’s top-selling country singer-songwriter in 1990 and 1991. Her highest charting single, We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight, earned SOCAN’s Country Award in 1991; and, in the same year, Home I’ll Be won the ECMA Song of the Year. In total, MacNeil has received 11 East Coast Music Awards, culminating with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
Her popular songs have been covered by the likes of Anne Murray, Tara MacLean, Matt Minglewood, The Elora Singers, The Elmer Iseler Singers, Celtic Thunder, Foster & Allen, and Mary K. Burke. Last week, acclaimed Nova Scotia-based singer-songwriter Jenn Grant released her new version of Flying On Your Own.
MacNeil also found success on television via her variety show, Rita and Friends, which aired on CBC from 1994 to 1997. The show regularly drew millions of viewers and won a Gemini Award in 1996. MacNeil would continue to produce her own television specials, and make appearances on shows such as the Royal Canadian Air Farce and Trailer Park Boys.
MacNeil has earned membership in the Order of Canada and the Order of Nova Scotia, and was inducted posthumously to the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013. In 2009, MacNeil earned SOCAN’s National Achievement Award.
Learn more about The Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame here.