Jimmy Rankin – Release the hounds
Song dogs, according to legend, are a canine breed that lived at the dawn of creation and howled their despair at the heavens. Canadian singer Jimmy Rankin dubbed his debut solo album Song Dog in honor of those four-legged singers. But even a cursory glance at Rankin’s recent history shows he has had reasons of his own to howl.
In September 1999, the Rankin Family — the Celtic band he fronted with his siblings John Morris, Raylene, Heather and Cookie — called it quits after a platinum career in Canada. On January 16, 2000, John Morris — the group’s pianist and fiddler, and a leading light in the Canadian traditional music scene — died in a car crash in Nova Scotia.
“It is a big loss for music,” Jimmy says. “When I was growing up, he was the guy in the house who could play any instrument magically. I was fortunate to play live music with him for many years. I have many fond memories of hanging out backstage, just jamming.”
Losing both a band and a brother, Rankin revived a plan to go solo. “I decided I wanted to get back out and get off my ass. I needed a change of scenery, so I went to Italy, Tuscany, by myself. A working holiday. I took a guitar and just bummed around and did the songwriterly thing of hanging out in cafes and drinking wine and cappuccino.”
The change of scenery, and the chance to cut loose, had a big influence on the music that came forth. “It wasn’t all one big tear, but I certainly did a lot of wine-tasting,” Rankin laughs in his lilting Cape Breton accent. “I like to be inspired. Meeting different people, going to different places, is key for me. Why do you think Picasso was mobile?”
On “Wasted”, one of the songs that dates from his Tuscan sabbatical, Rankin sings “I’ve been losing valuable time killing the blue/It’s true, I’m useless these days.” It’s a clear indication that, in true song dog tradition, Rankin exorcised his pain in music.
But Song Dog (which is dedicated to John Morris) also breaks new musical ground for Rankin. Gone are the fiddles, mandolins and rich harmonies, replaced by a durable singer-songwriter sound. “I wanted to rock out a little bit,” he explains. “Beef up the guitars and the B3, go for it on the drums. I didn’t use any fiddle in there, and that is an obvious comparison I wanted to get away from.”
Rankin and his siblings grew up in Mabou, a rural town on the island of Cape Breton, where ancient fiddle tunes and Gaelic songs have survived and thrived. Rankin’s parents frequently invited local fiddle masters to the house. “My mother would round us up and take us to concerts, and we would sing,” he says.
Their talent for traditional music evolved into a family band that played community dances, and while he was steeped in that music, Rankin also came under the sway of another influence. Cape Breton is second home to a coterie of artists including neoclassical composer Philip Glass, writer Rudy Wurlitzer, and photographer Robert Frank. Hanging out in that bohemian crowd influenced Rankin’s decision to pursue painting.
“When I finished art school, I thought I would do the starving artist thing,” he chuckles. But in the late ’80s, a tape of the Rankin Family’s songs made the rounds, and a blind call from Winnipeg Folk Festival organizers landed them a spot before a sizeable audience.
Without a label or management, the Rankins parlayed that initial buzz into a career. By the time EMI Music Canada came calling, the Rankins’ cottage industry had shipped 80,000 copies of their music as far away as Japan. The Rankin Family’s records Fare Thee Well Love, North Country and Endless Season rode a wave of interest in all things traditional to the top of the Canadian charts.
While the awards and accolades piled up at home, repeated attempts to break in the United States faltered, and the grind took a toll. “Driving across Canada in snowstorms in a van with 13 people,” Rankin shudders at the memory. “There was one point where I came home for three days, got married, and then went back on the road for another two months. That’s how stupid it got.” After 1998’s George Massenburg-produced Uprooted, the group split.
Song Dog finds Rankin plugging into a sound that is largely a departure from his work with the Rankin Family. Although the band had exhibited an ability to rock out with the hit roadhouse romp “You Feel The Same Way Too” on Endless Season, it’s a direction they never fully explored. “There definitely was a faction of people who were folk-Nazis, who didn’t want to see you stray from the traditional scene,” he says.
While reaction to Song Dog has been positive, there was one worrying bit of early feedback. While Rankin recorded the track “Lighthouse Heart”, producer Tim Thorney’s bulldog Jack Benny would wail mournfully. “Every time I hit this one note, the dog would howl,” he laughs at the memory. “But someone told me dogs like music. They like singing.”