Arguably Canada’s most famous musical clan, The Rankin Family grew up in Mabou, Cape Breton Island, all 12 of which were raised with music in the household and everyone singing and playing a variety of instruments.
The older kids began performing at dances, weddings, and other functions in and around Nova Scotia in the early ’70s, as well as for neighbours and friends. But as his siblings grew older and left for college and got on with life outside of music, John Morris saw Jimmy, Cookie, Raylene, and Heather rise up through the ranks and take their places. With John Morris on piano and fiddle and Jimmy on guitar, things began to take off in the late ’80s when they made their television debut on the CBC variety show “On The Road Again.” Several other program appearances followed suit.
Their 1989 independent, self-titled debut album was comprised mainly of traditional Celtic folk tunes and Nova Scotia jigs and reels, with the addition of older brother Michael’s reel “Mairi’s Wedding.” Although it sold primarily in the Maritimes, it was certified gold (50,000 copies) and earned the group a pair of East Coast Music Awards, partly on the back of the single, “Mo Run Geal, Dileas.”
FARE THEE WELL LOVE followed a year later. and was also independently released. With producer Chad Irschick returning, it again featured several traditional songs like “Fair and Tender Ladies” and “Tripper’s Jig.” But it also showcased the family’s songwriting skills, with Jimmy penning four of the songs, including “The Fisherman’s Son” and the title track. They were showcased at the Baddeck Festival of The Arts and the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1990, and with Canada as a whole now taking notice, the band was up for three Juno nominations in ’92 – for Most Promising Group, Best Country Group, and Roots/Traditional Album, although they failed to bring home any hardware.
During their formative years, they’d developed a strong following throughout the Maritimes, and caught the attention of executives at Capitol Records, who re-released both albums in ’92. The result was the debut album going platinum (100,000 units) and FARE THEE WELL LOVE selling 500,000 on its way to topping the Canadian country albums chart and peaking at #5 on the pop albums chart. The title track, “Orangedale Whistle,” and “Gillis Mountain” also all made a dent in the top 40 singles chart, peaking in the top 10 in some markets across the country.
1993’s NORTH COUNTRY album broke the band into the American market when it was released Stateside a year later. The Canadian version featured Jimmy writing eight of the 13 tracks, including the top 20 title track, while it topped the Canadian Country Albums chart and peaked at #7 on the pop chart on its way to being certified triple platinum. Other breakout singles were “Rise Again” and “Borders and Time.” Because it was EMI’s first venture for the band into the US, that version was actually a culmination of the band’s first three albums, as well as the previously unreleased “Grey Dusk of Eve.”
They made up for being shut out at the ’92 Juno Awards by taking home four awards in ’94 – for Single of the Year for “Fare Thee Well Love,” Group of the Year, Country Group or Duo, and Canadian Entertainer of the Year.
After “Grey Dusk of Eve” resurfaced as the title track to a five-song EP in ’95, the family released ENDLESS SEASONS with new producer John Jennings. It produced the top 5 hits “You Feel The Same Way Too” and “Forty Days and Nights” and the top 20 “The River,” while peaking at #6 on the Country Albums chart and #13 on the Pop chart. Videos for all three cuts also earned them heavy rotation on CMT Canada, as well as on MuchMusic.
Geraldine Rankin, one of the oldest of the family and one of the original founders of the group, died January 10, 2007 at her home in Calgary, the result of a brain aneurysm. The band went on hiatus for the next year, with live performances becoming less frequent anyway as the members were getting on with their lives outside of music.
Following the band being nominated for three more Junos over the last couple of years and winning their fifth a year earlier for Country Group or Duo of the Year, next up was UPROOTED in 1998. With new producer George Massenberg, it strayed somewhat from their traditional East Coast roots (though five of the 14 tracks were). Along with Jimmy once again being the primary songwriter, it produced the singles “Maybe You’re Right” and “Movin’ On,” and also included a cover of Bruce Cockburn‘s “One Day I Walk” and “Maybe You’re Right,” co-written by Cookie with Gordie Sampson.
With the band touring practically non-stop for the better part of six years, including several high profile festivals such as The 1998 Guinness Fest in Australia, they decided it was time to pack it in and go on to individual projects, and made the formal announcement in ’99 after releasing the greatest hits compilation SOUVENIR – 1989 – 1998, and recording a song for The Chieftains’s TEARS OF STONE album. They took home the Juno in April 2000 for Best Country Band or Duo, which they dedicated to John Morris, who died in a tragic auto collision in Cape Breton only a few months earlier on January 16.
Heather, Cookie, and Raylene released a Christmas album in 2002, but it was Jimmy who would go on to the most prolific solo career of the family, releasing two albums by the time they recorded the appropriately titled REUNION in 2007. With George Massenburg returning as producer, it featured almost a predominantly pop feel, with much less emphasis on the traditional celtic folk songs, except for “Hillsdale Medley” – written by John Morris a few years before his untimely death. Other tracks like the lead-off “Departing Song,” the covers of Gordon Lightfoot‘s “The Way I Feel” and John Hiatt’s “Gone” gave it a strong pop/country crossover appeal, and made the album a critic’s choice for one of the sleeper hits of the year, though it only peaked at #50 on the Canadian Albums chart.
Following an extensive year-long tour, they returned with THESE ARE THE MOMENTS in ’09 with new producer Steve Mackinnon. Along with the single “Breathe Dream Pray Love,” it featured new recordings of “Rise Again” and “Fare Thee Well Love.” The album also came in the middle of another pair of solo projects from Jimmy.
In addition to their six Juno Awards, The Rankin Family also earned a total of 15 ECMAs, three Canadian Country Music Awards, a pair of Big Country Music Awards, and four SOCAN Awards.