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Canadian Singer Rita MacNeil Dies at 68

Rita MacNeil Headshot - P 2013
Rita MacNeil

Cape Breton's first lady of song, best known for "Working Man" and "Flying on Your Own," died after complications from surgery.

TORONTO – Rita MacNeil, Cape Breton's first lady of song, has died because of complications from surgery. She was 68.

MacNeil, who was born in Canadian coal country, was best known as a singer-songwriter for hits about small-town Canada such as Working Man, about Cape Breton miners, Home I’ll Be and Flying On Your Own, which also was recorded by Anne Murray.

To get to the top of Canadian music, MacNeil overcame the early trauma of surgery for a cleft palate, a failed marriage and crippling stage shyness.

Despite those obstacles, MacNeil moved to Toronto to play the local folk circuit and released her first album, Born a Woman, in 1975.

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After returning to live in her hometown of Big Pond on Cape Breton island, national attention at last came MacNeil’s way after she performed at Expo 86 in Vancouver.

A year later, her fourth album, Flying On Your Own, found a mainstream audience countrywide.

Another career highlight came in 1989, when MacNeil performed Working Man at the Junos, Canada’s music awards, with Cape Breton’s Men of the Deeps all-male miners choir.

After MacNeil and her backing choir left the stage, Canadian songstress k.d. lang came onstage to accept a Juno for best country female vocalist, only to tell the nationwide audience: “It’s tough standing up here after listening to that.”

In all, MacNeil recorded 24 albums and followed up a 1993 Christmas TV special on the CBC by hosting her own TV show on the network, Rita and Friends, from 1994 to 1997.

In all, MacNeil won three Junos, including best female vocalist in 1990 and best country female vocalist in 1991.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of a dear sweet woman and a gifted singer-songwriter who represented women and her beloved Nova Scotia so eloquently in her songs,” Murray, herself a Canadian folk-music legend, said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper called MacNeil “a great Canadian performer and icon” and added that her death represented “a great loss to the cultural scene in Canada.”