Jimmy Rankin – Home Sweet Home

by Roman Mitz

Jimmy Rankin’s new album is called “Moving East” because that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s moved back to Nova Scotia after living and working in Nashville. One of the most famed Canadian songwriters who is known for his work with The Rankin Family and as a solo performer, Jimmy wrote such classic Rankin hits as “North Country” and the Juno winning single “Fare The Well Love”. His own songs include “Followed Her Around” and “Mull River Shuffle”, a Cape Breton anthem that jams dance floors and mosh pits at parties, weddings and raves as the last big song of the night. So what prompted Jimmy to come back home to Nova Scotia?

“We were in Nashville for seven and a half years, my wife, my children and myself,” Jimmy says, calling from London Ontario just before the sound check for his show there that evening. “I don’t think we intended to stay there so long to begin with. I’d been back and forth to Nashville for years because it’s such a music mecca. We wanted to get back before our kids got into junior high and all that. I’m really happy to be back and playing music from this record. It’s very east coast and it’s a record that’s very much inspired by the kind of music that motivated me when I was growing up.”

Moving East is a homecoming album featuring true stories, tall tales and bittersweet ballads, and the classic folk-rock sound that Jimmy is known for. “No More I’ll Go Roving” sounds like a song of reckoning or coming of age, while “Thin Ice” is the tragic tale of an east coast old-timer. Although the former sounds as if it may be autobiographical, Jimmy says most of the songs are based on people that he’s seen or heard of in Cape Breton.

“I have to be honest, a lot of the songs on the album are based on stories,” he begins. “I come from an area that has a deep story-telling tradition. When I wrote No More I’ll Go Roving, I was thinking of it as a rowdy singalong pub song. It’s based on someone I used to see as a kid growing up in Cape Breton. He was a rambler and a gambler.

Jimmy Rankin
Jimmy Rankin

“Thin Ice is another song based on a gentleman I saw when I was young. He was sort of itinerant and where I grew up I caught the last of that generation. If you’ve read any of Alistair MacLeod’s writing about Cape Breton, he talks about that type of older generation. There was a tradition where people would stop over for tea and just pass the news around and talk about history and genealogy. I just remember this older gentleman coming to my house and the image of him asking for a glass of water on a hot summer day stuck with me. It’s a true story what happened to him at the end. Somehow he went out on the ice off this bridge chasing his hat, and he went through the ice. I just wanted to commemorate him or immortalize him in song.”

Along with these Maritime memoirs, Moving East offers a healthy dose of folk-rock that relies more on riffs than recounting. “Loving You Never Gets Old”, his collaboration with Patricia Conroy, is a strong acoustic number in which Jimmy’s voice simply soars. The first single, “Been Away” is a catchy up-tempo tune that one hopes will do well on country radio.

“I really wasn’t thinking about country radio when I made this record,” Jimmy admits. “I’m fully aware of what’s happening on radio and this is sort of me going in the other direction. The airwaves are just jammed with things. I was really trying to make a record that reflected what I’m interested in and what inspired me to become a musician. I grew up listening to records where it’s just a guy with an acoustic guitar playing a really good song with a band. It’s much more complex now. You might find music through other people or online through a music service that suggests other artists and styles like the one you’re listening to. The record industry has changed so much you really have to think out of the box on how to get your stuff out there. It’ll be a harder sell because radio is a mixed bag now, particularly country radio. But every once in a while something sort of pops up on radio that’s different than everything else. One never knows.”

Jimmy is extremely proud of the fact that all of the musicians on the record are from the east coast. While inland folk may not recognize players like J.P. Cormier, Bill Stevenson and Hilda Chaisson, the name Ashley MacIsaac will be familiar to most as the fiddler extraordinaire is a multi-platinum selling artist as well as a multi-Juno winner. His poignant playing takes the lead on “These Roads” and then he kicks it up a notch on the album closer “Dirt and Potatoes”.

“That was one take with Ashley,” Jimmy says. “It was just turn on the tape recorder and go. A lot of the record was done off the floor with a live voice and live playing. In Cape Breton there’s sort of a sub-culture of traditional country music on cassettes and old reel to reels that’s circulating around there. You have all of these incredible kitchen tapes of these players that were never recorded professionally. Ashley would have grown up listening to those tapes like I did so I asked if he could capture that on Dirt and Potatoes, and of course he did.”



Another key contributor to Moving East is producer Joel Plaskett, a native of Dartmouth who was a member of alternative rock band Thrush Hermit in the 90’s. In terms of his contributions, empathy was equally important to sonic expertise.

“Yeah, it was fun recording these songs,” Jimmy explains. “I wanted to work with someone who understood folk music and also pop music. I wanted to do a very acoustic, rootsy record with a lot of traditional overtones and undertones. Joel came over to the house one day and I played him the songs in very rough form. I was delighted when he understood where I wanted to take them. I explained to him that I wanted to make sort of a pub record, not like a Pogues record or anything like that, but just sort of a traditional folk-rock record and Joel really got it.”

There is even an east coast connection to the record’s cover art as Jimmy utilized a couple of shots from renowned Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank, who just happens to be one of his neighbours in Cape Breton. Frank’s most famous work is his 1958 book titled “The Americans” in which he offers an outsider’s perspective of American society. In pop circles he’s better known for doing album covers for Tom Waits and The Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main Street”. The back cover shot of Moving East is of the beach at Jimmy’s place in Cape Breton which, fortunately, does not sport a beached dead mammal like the one he sings about in “Haul Away The Whale”.

“A whale actually did wash up on the shore of Cape Breton in the 70’s, but they didn’t haul it away, they blew it up.” Jimmy says. “That song is a singalong sea shanty and it’s really about a trip down the road. Where I’m from it’s called Route 19 and I mention that in the first line of the song. If you drive onto Cape Breton Island and swing a hard left you’ll go down Route 19 and through all of these communities that are mentioned in the song. Ashley’s from that area and so is Natalie McMaster. That’s the part of the world where the Rankins come from.”

Speaking of whom, it’s been nearly a decade since we last saw an album from one of Canada’s most heralded groups. Although he’s busy promoting his new album on a cross country tour that wraps up in British Columbia in mid-November, one wonders whether a Rankins reunion may one day be in the cards.

“I never say never,” Jimmy begins. “Heather’s just out doing her own solo work now and I’m doing mine. People always approach me about doing stuff and we have done some reunion tours. I like to play those tunes and there is a band that knows all of those songs, so if someone calls and the moment is right, it’s absolutely something that I would do.”

For the time being, however, it’s just good to have an album full of classic Cape Breton storytelling, celebrating Jimmy’s move back home. And for old-school audiophiles, there’s even a vinyl version available, which the singer is still waiting to hear.

“I’m just in the process of renovating my house and I haven’t unpacked my stereo yet,” Jimmy laughs. “I can’t wait to set it up and play it. I grew up listening to vinyl and looking at the artwork and liner notes. When CD’s were coming in, vinyl was out and everybody was throwing it away. Now it’s back and I love it.”


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