No matter how many times Rita MacNeil left Cape Breton (her Wikipedia page has her bouncing back and forth from God’s Country to Toronto six times), she always came back. Maybe it’s because her songs were as dramatic and arching as the waves of the Atlantic. Maybe it’s because the people there were a constant inspiration (as songs like “Working Man” prove). Maybe she just couldn’t get over the rugged beauty of the place.
The feeling, whatever sparked it, was mutual. MacNeil isn’t for nothing known as Cape Breton’s first lady, and remains its biggest musical export. Hers was a brand of singer-songwriter spangled with piano, one that stood alongside the likes of other Canadian folk titans like Joni Mitchell in their earnestness and nature-imbued lyrics—as her decades-overdue induction to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame this weekend, as part of the 2021 ECMAs, proves.
Related The 2021 ECMA awards touch down online June 10: Tune into the event via Facebook or Youtube at 8pm, and go behind-the-scenes on The Coast's Instagram.
Related A whole bunch of Halifax musicians get ECMA noms: Rose Cousins and Classified lead the pack for the East Coast Music Awards, airing on Facebook and Youtube June 10.
And if all this has you ready to reconsider MacNeil’s music and legacy (just because your Grandma dug it doesn’t mean it’s not worth listening to), you might want to consider a pilgrimage to Cape Breton’s answer to Graceland: A new Airbnb called Rita’s Retreat, a sprawling lakeside home that was the late singer’s estate. The two listings—one for the main cottage and one for a self-contained bachelor suite—popped up on the vacation rentals site this year, and range from $228 to $514 a night. With an indoor pool, basement bar and multiple jacuzzis, it’s large livin’—though our favourite detail of all is definitely that MacNeil’s own piano remains in the home’s living room.