New Joel Plaskett-produced album, national tour coming in September

Now this is big news. One of the true originals in Canadian music has moved from Nashville to Nova Scotia, and is celebrating with music only he could make. Jimmy Rankin’s new Moving East is pure East Coast, a homecoming album featuring true stories, tall tales and bittersweet ballads, and the classic folk-rock sound that Rankin helped pioneer.

Just at a time when people are searching out authentic cultural voices, who tell strong stories and write well-crafted songs, Rankin has made an unapologetically East Coast folk-rock record. It’s his take on what it means to live and breathe Maritime tradition, culture and music, but with a raw, unsentimental and current edge.   “I’m putting the party back in the kitchen” quips Rankin.

It’s called Moving East because that’s exactly what Jimmy’s done. He’s moved back to Nova Scotia after seven years living and working in Nashville. Hooking up with fellow Nova Scotian Joel Plaskett as producer, he’s made an album appealing to young and old alike, with songs running the gamut from gritty pub tunes to soulful ballads all featuring great storytelling, and fine songwriting.

This is Rankin’s first album in four years, and he’s been saving up songs to make this one special. “I’ve been thinking about making this kind of record for quite a while,” he says.  “In writing for this record, I took a lot of inspiration from my Cape Breton roots and the music I grew up with.  It’s an East Coast folk-rock record complete with a lot of traditional instruments.”

It comes at a time when Jimmy’s appeal is at new heights, with old fans and new. His Rankin Family classic “Mull River Shuffle” has become a Cape Breton anthem with an all-ages cult following, jamming dance floors and mosh pits at parties, weddings and raves…the DJ’s choice for last song of the night.  There are dozens of new cover versions out, from trad bands in Ireland and bluegrass groups to a comedy rendition, there’s an all-ukulele take, and it’s even a wedding favourite, at Italian weddings no less!

Rankin of course is a renowned Canadian songwriter with a long string of hits for The Rankin Family and from his solo albums. He joined the family group as a young teen, and soon became co-lead singer and songwriter of such classics as “North Country,” “You Feel The Same Way Too,” and “Movin’ On.” His name is synonymous with the East Coast sound, and was one of the very first writers to bring it to a national and international audience. His 1994 Juno-winning single “Fare Thee Well Love” has taken on a life of its own having been sung by choirs around the globe and in 2013, voted the #1 East Coast song of all time by CBC listeners across Canada.

As a solo artist, he’s been ruling the charts since his 2001 debut Song Dog, with such hits as “Followed Her Around,” “Here in My Heart,” and “Cool Car.” His overcrowded mantle includes five Juno Awards, seven Canadian Country Music Awards, and a whopping 27 East Coast Music Awards.

His music has taken him around the world, and lead to writing partnerships with some of the world’s best in Nashville and elsewhere. But after years spent down South, he knew it was time to pack up the family and head home.

“I never meant to stay away so long” he explains. “It just happened.  Work, travel…life happens and suddenly, in the blink of an eye, seven years have passed and your kid has a Southern accent” Rankin says with a laugh.  “The last straw was the crazy US political climate – it was time to go home…”

Settled down in Plaskett’s New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth, N.S., they assembled an all-star team of East Coast talent, including string monster J.P. Cormier, fiddling sensation Ashley MacIsaac, and old-school Cape Breton pianist Hilda Chiasson. Rocker Plaskett might seem like a surprise choice to some, but he was perfect for what Rankin needed.

“With this record, I wanted to strip away the stereotypes about Maritime music,” explains Jimmy. “In recording, I tried to get to a place of authenticity and true local flavour. Joel was great in this regard because he’s got a strong pop sensibility but grounded in the folk roots tradition of his Dad. Together we assembled the most amazing cast of local players and recorded live off the floor, rough, raw and real.”

So it rocks as much as it folks, it has tradition but there are lots of modern themes too. What it has in spades is the story-telling musical tradition that could only come from a place like Cape Breton, mostly rural and geographically isolated. It’s true local culture, but universal too, the same way that places like Ireland and Scotland have heart and soul that affect us all.

“Some songs are like time capsules that go back to a time before 24-7 social media hogged our headspace, when folks had to entertain themselves,” says Rankin. “Growing up we used to have, for lack of a better term, kitchen parties. Friends would come to the house and we would entertain them with singing, guitars, fiddles, dancing, stories, good cheer, that kind of thing. Then there were the dance halls, taverns, a lot of back road driving and carousing, so goes life in rural Cape Breton. These songs are an homage to that culture.”

The emotional heart of the album is the song “These Roads,” a ballad that laments driving by those roadside crosses and flower monuments and knowing there’s an all too familiar painful backstory. “I was building the record around this literal and metaphorical story,” says Rankin. “There are so many tragedies in this part of the world. Or maybe it’s because I’m from a small town…Everybody knows somebody who’s either been hurt or killed on the highway…three or four kids in a car, maybe it’s weather, or after a prom or something.”  Rankin is no stranger to such grief.  His brother and Rankin Family bandmate, John Morris was killed on the Shore Road in Margaree.

Oral tradition and storytelling is a big part of the Cape Breton culture, and a major source of entertainment. Jimmy’s added to that with several songs on the album. “Haul Away The Whale” is a tongue-in-cheek sea shanty of sorts, about a road trip around Cape Breton. “Thin Ice” is based on the story of John D., his life and how he died falling through the ice in Mabou one cold winter’s day. “Highlander” was loosely inspired by the writing of Alistair MacLeod, who wrote about rugged Cape Bretoners, who, in many ways were like the warriors who fought on the battlefields of Culloden in their ancestral Scotland.

“Down at the Shore” is a dark, humourous folk ballad with all the makings of a good Cape Breton story, complete with murder, drama and intrigue.  And “Been Away” is a homecoming song, reminiscing about growing up in Nova Scotia and going back to a place in time.

“It’s the kind of record you’d listen to when you’re hanging out in your kitchen or at a pub,” says Jimmy, “mixed tempos, some good sing-along drinking songs, a few ballads and ending with a nod to old style, lo-fi Cape Breton fiddle with “Dirt ‘n Potatoes” featuring Ashley MacIsaac, Hilda Chiasson on piano and me on guitar.”

There’s more local colour in the artwork. Famed photographer of the Beat era, and a long-time Mabou neighbour, Robert Frank, contributed photographs for the front and back album covers. “I’ve known Robert since I was a kid and over the years he’s been a big artistic inspiration for me,” says Jimmy. “I’ve seen his photographs of Mabou in major art museums around the world.

There’s so much to discover and to celebrate on Moving East. There’s Jimmy Rankin moving home where he belongs. There’s the first-time partnership of Jimmy and Joel Plaskett. There are the all-star performances from some of the East Coast’s best musicians. And there’s a whole crop of brand-new songs, some of the most inspired music Rankin has ever made, and a flavour he hasn’t offered since his Rankin Family days.

It’s an album full of classic Cape Breton storytelling, unashamedly celebrating his moving back, and making the music he loves. Now that’s a homecoming.