Jimmy Rankin is going for it. Twenty-five years into a career that has seen him embraced as one of Canada’s most beloved singer-songwriters and hit makers, with platinum albums and pretty much every award the nation hands out, Rankin has decided now’s the time: on his new Back Road Paradise, you’ll hear him like never before, full-on country. “To me, it’s the most country I’ve been, ever. I’ve always sort of dabbled with country, even way back with The Rankins, and this is where I am right now.”
Of course, country fans and radio stations have always been happy to have Jimmy Rankin in the family, and so have folk, pop and traditional audiences. He’s one of the most versatile writers and performers around, but for his sixth solo album, he’s a man on a mission. “Apart from what I think are just really good songs, it’s the progression to a full-fledged country record,” Rankin explains. “After my last record (2011’s Forget About The World), where there were little tinges of country here and there, instruments and arrangements, I wanted to take this a step further and go to town with those country instruments, like pedal steel, dobro, banjo and fiddle. I really just wanted to jump in with both feet, rather than just pussy-footing around the pond.”
The result is the catchiest batch of tunes Rankin’s ever written, with all the hallmarks of what he does: smart lyrics, great vocals, perfectly crafted songwriter material, couched in a bigger, modern country sound. Above all, it’s still Jimmy, that familiar voice, homespun and heartfelt, capable of taking you to the deepest emotions, or the best party. Country flavour is what he’s after here, but the genre is Jimmy Rankin. “To me a country song is a song with a good story. It’s not complicated, and then you season it with good, country-flavoured instruments. And then I put my stamp on it, my vocal style, and my guitar playing, my finger-picking and delivery.”
Back Road Paradise features 12 brand-new Rankin compositions, including leadoff single Cool Car. It’s a perfect example of the sound Rankin was going for, and an instant classic filled with big hooks, an awesome chorus, and sweetened with ringing pedal steel. It’s a love song, a driving song, a mysterious trip that takes you on a road trip through far-flung spots, from Colorado to, yes, Nova Scotia. “I always have to get the ocean in my songs,” Rankin laughs. “That’s a part of me I never shake.”
Grammy winner and bluegrass icon Allison Krauss lends her voice to the song Flames, a Rankin ballad like you’re never heard before, Jimmy Rankin-noire. “It’s a dark love song. It’s got an eerie feeling and a bit of a sinister element to it that I really like. That’s one of my favourites on the record, and one of my first choices.” Another stand-out on the disc is a full-up duet with Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, on the cut Never Gonna Leave. It rips out of the gate with the pair in full harmony, a dream meeting between two voices that have dominated the airwaves in Canada for a quarter century. “It’s a fun song, a dance song,” Rankin enthuses. “It’s got an Everly Brothers vibe but with a modern twist.”
Rankin’s been playing since his early teens, when he joined his siblings in the internationally-acclaimed Rankin Family, from Mabou, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. His first major composition, Fare Thee Well Love, was the title track of the group’s smash album from 1992, #1 on the AC charts, quintuple platinum, and in 2013 was voted the #1 East coast song of all time by CBC listeners. More hits followed through the 90’s, including North Country, You Feel The Same Way Too, and Movin’ On, all from Jimmy’s pen. The Rankins became international stars and ambassadors for Cape Breton’s Celtic sound, performing all over the world, teaming up for recording sessions with The Chieftains, and winning six Juno Awards.
By the end of the decade, the brothers and sisters decided it was time to concentrate on solo careers, and Jimmy’s started with a bang. 2001’s Song Dog saw his single Follow Her Around become a huge hit, winning the SOCAN Award for Single of the Year, and tear up the charts all over the radio dial. The hits have kept coming, with Midnight Angel, Morningbound Train, Butterfly, Slipping Away and Here In My Heart all becoming radio favourites.
Confident and excited, Jimmy Rankin is as proud of Back Road Paradise as any of the work in his long and hit-filled career. Plus, he feels like he’s just hitting his stride. The great leap into a full country sound has allowed him to turn up the wattage, cut to the chase, and make the songs that will hit home with everyone, real Jimmy Rankin hits. “It’s really catchy, you can write that kind of song in another genre, but these are country pop songs, with great choruses and great arrangements. To me, it’s nice to sing those songs and have people recognize them and sing along to them. That’s where I am these days.”