The beginnings of The Barra MacNeils weren’t unlike most family groups, growing up with music in the home and everyone picking up the different instruments that were laying around the house – and deeply rooted in Celtic culture, its music, dance, language, and history.
The name comes from the Scottish island of Barra, the ancestral home of the MacNeil clan. Hailing from Sydney Mines on Cape Breton, the group was founded by brothers Sheumas (piano & keyboards), Kyle (violin, guitar, mandolin), and Stewart (bass, guitar, whistles) with their sister Lucy (violin, bodhran, when she was only 10.
With Stewart and Lucy handling the bulk of the lead vocals, they played traditional Celtic folk at various festivals in and around the islands, and quickly gained a reputation for their musicianship. They were guests on several radio and TV programs, leading to them branching out to shows on the mainland. But due to their ages, they could only tour during summer holidays. They all later attended Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, but continued to perform during and after this period.
But frustrated there were few labels interested in trying to market the music, they set up their own label in 1986, Celtic Aire Records. For the most part, their self titled debut later that year contained traditional jigs and reels, and most critics agreed it was too heavy on the traditional elementic to gain widespread interest. Still, Lucy’s violin work on “The Highland Queen” medley and “One For Jeffy” and “Proud Spirit,” both written by Stewart, helped gain them exposure while they continued to refine their sound and show, which blended the music with dancing and storytelling.
The follow-up album, ’89’s ROCK IN THE STREAM still held true to their roots, but a shift to a wider commercial audience was already taking shape, with “Rattlin, Roarin Willie” and “Standing By The Subway.” Like its predecessor, distribution was minor, with the album sold primarily at shows, which by this point had grown in number and was stretching out across to Ontario and the US eastern seaboard, and a few music stores.
Their breakthrough was 1990’s TIMEFRAME, which helped the group earn a pair of East Coast Music Awards for album and group of the year in ’91 and ’92. It also produced their first top 40 hit on the AC chart in “Row Row Row,” and “My Heart’s in the Highlands.” Both singles also crossed over and placed on the pop and country charts, as well. With a major deal signed with Polygram, both albums were re-released in 1993.
Their first offering for the label was later that year with their first gold album, CLOSER TO PARADISE, which was hailed by the critics for throwing jazz, pop, and the blues into their mix. The lead single, “Darling Be Home Soon” peaked in the top 30 on both the AC and pop chart, and the video also got good play on the still-new MuchMusic. The single was followed by other genre-crossing hits like “In The Wink of An Eye,” the orchestrated “Caledonia,” the title track, and “We Celebrate.” Tour dates spread out across the country, and then overseas, and they also opened for Celine Dion across Canada.
They made enough of an impact on the European stages that led to THE TRADITIONAL ALBUM in ’94, their first release for the overseas market. But Polygram was looking for commercially marketable material, and therefore wouldn’t bite on a European distribution deal, so they did it through Iona Records out of London instead. “Clumsy Lover Set” and “Twice a Year Fiddler” were two of the few original songs on the album, which was what the album implied, a return to their Celtic roots, and therefore, no singles were released.
They concentrated on appealing to a commercially accessible homegrown market for the next album, THE QUESTION in ’95. “Myopic” made it to #24 on the AC chart and charted in the top 60 on the country chart, and was followed by “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” which was also a chart-crosser that did well. Other noteable tracks included “Going Down The Road” and the Celtic “Seallaibh Curaidh Eoghainn,” and the band earned the ECMA awards for album and group of the year. Their stock also rose when they appeared with Rita MacNeil’s (no relation) TV Christmas special in ’96.
UNTIL NOW, the 1997 follow-up album, didn’t fare as well, coming nowhere near the top 40 on the albums chart and only producing one mediocrely received single, “Mouth Music.” But with an insurgence in music from the Martimes over the last few years, they were still one of the most popular draws at festivals throughout North America, Europe, and Scandinavia, and even made their first appearances in The Caribbean.
After their first Christmas album in ’99, they returned a year later with RACKET IN THE ATTIC. But when “Misty Moisty Morning” and “By Northern Light” failed to chart, Polygram severed ties. Still, they took home the 2001 ECMA for Best Roots & Traditional Album, and earned a Juno nomination, as well. The title track also found its way to the soundtrack of the 2002 Canadian curling flick, “Men With Brooms.”
They also released the DVD, CAPE BRETON CHRISTMAS in ’01. Based on their CBC special (later to become part of PBS’ fundraising drives), it featured backstage footage and at home look at the group and a traditional Maritimes holiday season, as well as a mix of Celtic and traditional yuletide classics like “Taladh Chriosda” and “O Holy Night.”
Now on Maple Music Recordings, no singles came from 2005’s ALL AT ONCE album, the first with the youngest of the siblings, Ryan and Boyd, now on board. But the critically acclaimed project did feature the lead-off “Haven’t Got a Care,” “A Thousand Miles,” and “You Couldn’t Have Come At A Better Time.”
The mid ’00s saw the band spend less time in the studios or on the road so as to get on with their individual seperate lives. The CHRISTMAS ALBUM II in ’06 was followed by their first compilation a year later, the 20TH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION, then two seperate live albums in 2009, IN CONCERT and IN SESSION.
Marking their silver anniversary, they set out on a major world tour in 2012 that took them across North America, and also played to sold-out crowds at major festivals in the UK and Scandinavia. That same year also saw the release of a pair of live concerts – CELTIC COLOURS, which featured cameos from the likes of Matt Minglewood on “As I Roved Out,” Old Man Luedecke on “Little Bird,” and Ron Hynes on “Gone To Canada,” and IN CONCERT WITH SYMPHONY NOVA SCOTIA, which was recorded during a two-night stint at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax.