On a Personal Note

Rita MacNeil is a Canadian singer who is well-known across the country, but might not be a household name in the United States. Her autobiography from 1998, On a Personal Note, tells a detailed story of her life in Cape Breton, her body issues, her relationships, her children, ultimately ending with the start of her triumphant musical success story when she won the Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist in 1987 at the age of 43.

MacNeil, who wrote this book with Anne Simpson, opens up about some traumatic life experiences that she had never before shared, such as being sexually molested for many years by an uncle. All her life she had to overcome body image issues, brought on by this abuse as well as by her cleft lip, which took several operations throughout her life to repair. She is upfront about her weight and its effect on her career, and she devotes a chapter to the music business’s obsession with image, especially for women.

I became a fan of Rita MacNeil many years after her breakthrough song “Flying on Your Own”, and album of the same name, which came out in 1987. It wasn’t until I saw one of her Christmas specials that I took notice of her voice and her songwriting talent. MacNeil composes her own songs and her Christmas albums are, save for one or two chestnut classics, comprised of her own material. Her songs speak from the heart and her delivery sings to your soul. Those are reasons why she has such a tremendous following in Canada. 

I was amused by a couple stories she told, such as being asked by a fan to perform Anne Murray’s “Flying on Your Own”. This song was a Rita original, and made famous by Rita herself. Anne Murray covered the song and released it the following year, making it a hit again. It was not as big a hit in Canada the second time around, yet it cracked the US Billboard Country Chart as Murray’s cover. Rita also told of the time she and the band were on tour in Australia. Rita was always the first one on her tour bus yet this time she was the last. After sitting alone inside for what seemed like forever, she was suddenly greeted by an entire busload of Japanese tourists. She had chosen the wrong bus!

Rita has two children, Laura, born in 1966, and Wade, born in 1970. She has fond things to say of her ex-husband, who fathered Wade. She has a close relationship with her ex to this day. However, MacNeil never mentions her first love by name. The father of Laura, whom MacNeil never married, was not named. I can imagine Rita did this on purpose, to suit the father’s wishes for anonymity. I can’t imagine that Rita would hold any long-lasting negative feelings toward him, based on what she wrote, by leaving his name out.

This was an inspirational read, and it made me appreciate the woman who gave such loving music all the more. Tell me, my American readers, have you heard of Rita MacNeil?

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