Creative Women Doing Sixty: Rita MacNeil, Cape Breton's First Lady of Song

by Mehreen Shahid, TEC Intern

Published at 2013-04-22

"I don't read and write music, I just feel it, and it all comes at once." – Rita MacNeil


On Monday, April 22, residents of Cape Breton will gather at St. Mary’s Church in Big Pond, Nova Scotia, to celebrate the life of one of the greatest voices of Canadian country and folk music: Rita MacNeil. She passed away on April 16, 2013, due to complications in surgery; she was only 68 and still on the top of her game.


The Making of a Legend

Growing up in a small town, Rita MacNeil was a shy and withdrawn girl. Her reclusive personality was marred by surgery performed to correct a congenital condition called cleft palate. Despite being a sibling of seven she always remained in the background. Even her singing lessons were unable to help her overcome her shyness; she was always more comfortable singing in her mother's kitchen than in front of her teacher.


She moved to Toronto at age 17 and wrote her first song, but her claim to fame was yet to come. During her struggle in Toronto, she became part of the feminist movement that was only beginning to take hold during the 1970s. Suddenly, Rita had found her calling. She began writing songs taking inspiration from the feminist movement meetings.


The Move towards Success

Finally, budding as an artist, she got married and had two children; in 1976, however, the marriage ended. Fame was still a decade away; Rita's first big break came during the 1986 Expo in Vancouver. The following year Flying on Your Own was released, the album that helped her break into the world of radio. This album went gold and Rita went on to win her first-ever accolade: Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist, she was 42 years old. Subsequently, she went on to win the Juno Awards for Female Vocalist of the Year in 1990 and Country Female Vocalist of the Year in 1991.


Her rise to fame was inevitable after winning the award. Her pent-up talent had finally found an outlet. She released another album in the following year titled Reason to Believe. This album reflected her love for rock and it was well received, quickly reaching platinum across Canada. The release of a Christmas album later in 1988 received an overwhelming response and won her many new fans.


A True Entrepreneur

Belonging to a region where coal mining was a major occupation, Rita nurtured a deep concern and sympathy for miners. Her song “Working Man” was so close to her heart that each performance, no matter where it was, brought tears to the eyes of the listeners and to Rita herself. She travelled across the world performing for fans and opened shows for artists like Steeleye Span and sang along André-Philippe Gagnon in Australia.


In 1986, back in Cape Breton, Rita launched her business by the name of Rita's Tea Room, where she gave performances while her audience enjoyed cups of tea and homebaked treats.  She made her move towards television in 1994 when she began hosting a CBC-TV variety program called Rita and Friends. The show ran for three years and won a Gemini Award in 1997. Her Christmas variety shows were also boundlessly successful.


The End of an Era

In honour of her work she was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1992 and, in 2005, she was awarded the Order of Nova Scotia. Over 25 years, she gave over 400 performances, released 24 albums, and sold millions of records, winning the hearts of Canadians and music lovers from all over the world.


She struggled through great desolation during the early years of her life but found peace and bounty in the arms of her home town. The lyrics of her song “Home I’ll Be” aptly reflected her love for Cape Breton. In her death she will be cradled by her home and lie in peace and harmony leaving us to mourn the loss of an inspirational voice and a most generous and gentle First Lady of Song.



“You can accept yourself the way you are

and there is not a damn thing wrong with that.”

– Rita MacNeil