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Sibling Revelry : Family Harmony Keeps the Rankin Brothers and Sisters in Tune With Celtic Tradition

August 27, 1996|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Rankin Family is practically Canada's Hootie & the Blowfish. They clean up at industry awards shows; they've sold more records than just about anyone else in the country, and they play to sold-out crowds at some of the largest venues in the land.

Yet on its second tour through Southern California, the band still has difficulty filling clubs such as the 550-seat Coach House, where it plays tonight.

But that's no ego blow to the siblings who make up this Celtic-influenced folk group, merely a challenge to work harder to reach new audiences.

"We just try to win over as many new faces as we can," Raylene Rankin, one of the troika of sisters whose high, sweet harmonies dominate their sound, said by phone from a tour stop in San Francisco. "I feel we're going through this period where older musical styles are being rejuvenated, and, hopefully, we'll benefit from it.

"We may not draw the big crowds down your way, but it's very rewarding when you do get a good crowd in places where you haven't played much before, if at all.

"It's an incredible feeling for us to introduce people to our music, capture their hearts and imagination for 90 minutes and become convinced they will listen to us again," she said.

The group includes singers Cookie and Heather plus two brothers, singer-songwriter-guitarist Jimmy and multi-instrumentalist John Morris. The band was formed in the late 1980s in Inverness County on the western shore of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, a serene artistic community where the Rankins grew up.

Irish and Scottish are the most prominent influences there, and the Rankins' style gradually emerged as a mixture of traditional and pop-influenced original material sung mostly in English (occasionally Gaelic).

The sisters' sweet sopranos were honed from years of singing at home and performing at square dances, weddings and parties.

"Because of the environment we were immersed in since we were all little kids, our ethnic background comes through in our music, whether it's intentional or not," said Raylene Rankin, one of 12 siblings.

"The music, food, language and customs were brought over with the Scots during the 1800s. Before the world was plugged in, people entertained themselves with things like house parties. And to some extent, it's still that way."

Although their music is strongly rooted in tradition, the Rankins have stretched out over the years by including strains of pop, folk and country. The group's influences run from such traditionalists as Christy Moore and Mary Black to contemporary musicians including the Gipsy Kings, Elton John, Mark Knopfler, Nanci Griffith and Tracy Chapman.

*

For its 1993 "North Country," the first album released in the United States, the group went with several elaborately produced tracks, some including synthesizers. On the new "Endless Seasons" album, the Rankins return to a folkier sound.

"We brought in [co-producer] John Jennings, who's done terrific work with Mary Chapin Carpenter, and he was instrumental in letting us capture ourselves as were at that moment," Rankin said. "He took a pretty laissez-faire approach to the decision-making, but when we needed his input and experience, he was there for us."

The band also collaborated more on writing and recording "Endless Seasons." In the past, Jimmy Rankin was principal architect and player. In addition to songs by Jimmy are some by Cookie ("The River") and John Morris ("Eyes of Margaret" and "Blue Eyed Suzie").

"The thinking was that five ideas are better than working with only one," explains Raylene, who chose two traditional songs--"Native" and "Padstow"--for her lead vocals.

"Everyone came to our preproduction sessions with something of their own," she said. "We had 18 songs and decided to go with only 13 on the album. So we laid them on the floor, kicked 'em around a bit and said, 'May the best idea win!' "

*

In 1994, all five Rankins were declared winners when the band took four top honors at the annual Juno Awards (Canada's version of the Grammys), including group and single of the year for "Fare Thee Well Love."

The attention and glitz that go with something like the Juno Awards seem a world apart from the quiet lifestyle Rankin shares back home with her husband. "I'm not a party person, but I love cooking," she said. Her idea of a break might be trying a new recipe.

But after each break from touring and recording, the group reunites, even to scuffle now and again as siblings.

"Singing together all the time does lead to some good fights," she said. "But I have to say that when things click, it sure feels like being in a close family has something to do with it. It sounds like a cliche, but there's an almost magical power that takes over when we're really on."

* The Rankin Family, Scott Meldrum and Blue Highway play tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $17.50-$19.50. (714) 496-8930.

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