Although I was raised on the west coast of Canada, I grew up on the music of the East Coast. Maybe it’s my Celtic heritage seeping through. Anything from fiddle music to traditional Irish folk shanties, I listened to it all. Great Big Sea, The Barra MacNeils and Ashley MacIsaac were just a few of my childhood favourites. However, no band defined my youth more than the Rankin Family. I had all their album, knew the words to many songs and whenever John Morris Rankin or Howie McDonald played a rocking fiddle solo, I was step-dancing somewhere (mostly in my bedroom). That’s why when I heard the news of Raylene Rankin’s death recently from cancer, I felt part of my childhood die with it.
Raylene Rankin was the fifth of twelve Rankin children, and the second oldest of the five that ultimate made up the internationally acclaimed and award-winning band (the other four were older brother John Morris, and younger siblings Jimmy, Cookie and Heather). All the siblings were great singers and musicians; Raylene seemed to be the most technically adept of the bunch and, in my opinion, possessed the greatest vocal range.
Each of the siblings had their signature song. Without a doubt Raylene’s was ‘Rise Again’ (which arguably was the Rankins most famous song). Her soprano vocals still give me goose bumps every time I listen to the song. Although it was Heather who turned the siblings on to Gaelic, it was Raylene who took the lead on songs in the traditional Scottish language (my personal favourites are Mo Run Gael Dileas and Leis An Lurgainn).
Raylene was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, shortly after the death of John Morris, and just two years after the break-up of the family band.
In a documentary that aired on CBC in June, she recalls how her mother Kathleen was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44 (Raylene was 40 when her cancer was first diagnosed) and how she persevered for another 18 years.
She stated she was really worried for her son, who was just three years old at a time. After having a lumpectomy, she was declared cancer-free. During the siblings' second reunion tour in 2009, Raylene’s cancer returned, and this time she underwent a masectomy.
She also stated this was when her ‘mid-life crisis’ began. She started thinking about mortality and how to stop being afraid of the ultimate fear. This process led to the release of her second solo album “All in Diamonds”, released just earlier this year. Even during her worst days, she managed to perform – with a wig and all – at a benefit for homeless youth back in May, even singing her signature Rise Again.
This is not the first time the Rankins have faced tragedy. Their father, Alexander “Buddy” Rankin died unexpectedly in 1981. Then in January 2000, just four months after they announced their break-up, John Morris Rankin was killed when his truck swerved on some road salt and flipped on an icy road. He was 40. On the eve of their first reunion tour in 2007, founding member Geraldine Rankin died of a brain aneurysm. Throughout it all the Rankin siblings have persevered.
The siblings released their first album in 1989 – titled the Rankin Family. Both that album, and 1990’s “Fare Thee Well Love” were originally self-released. In 1992, they were both re-issued by Capitol Records. “The Rankin Family” hit platinum statues, while “Fare Thee Well Love” was certified 5x platinum.
1993 saw the release of “North Country”, arguably the band’s biggest and most well-known album. Two more CDs followed – “Endless Seasons” in 1995 and “Uprooted” in 1998 – before the group disbanded in 1999. In those 10 years the siblings sold two million records, won six Junos, three Canadian Country Music Awards and fifteen East Coast Music Awards.
Although they went their separate ways in 1999, many of the siblings have remained active in music. Jimmy Rankin has been the most prolific, having released four solo records – the most recent being 2011’s “Forget About the World”. Raylene herself made two solo albums. The aforementioned “All in Diamonds” was released in June of this year; her previous solo effort “Lambs in Spring” was done in 2004. Heather has dabbled in acting appearing such films as “The Hanging Garden” and Canadian indie favourite “Marion Bridge”, co-starring Molly Parker, Ellen Page, and written by Daniel McIvor. The three sisters have also performed together on numerous occasions.