Max MacDonald pays tribute to Cape Breton songwriters — and they return the favour — on new album, Songs of Home
LAURA JEAN GRANT
The Cape Breton Post
SYDNEY — A quick look down the list of support vocalists on Max MacDonald’s new album is a testament to the high esteem in which he is held in Cape Breton’s musical community.
The CD, Songs of Home, features MacDonald singing the songs of J.P. Cormier, Leon Dubinsky, Bruce Guthro, Buddy MacDonald, Steve MacDougall, Ronnie MacEachern, Rita MacNeil, Matt Minglewood, Sam Moon, Jimmy Rankin, Gordie Sampson and Duncan Wells — who also all agreed to sing backup vocals on their respective tracks. Quite a list.
“We’re so fortunate. We’ve got one Grammy-winning songwriter in Cape Breton but we could have 10. They’re all just so good at the craft of songwriting so I had a tremendous catalogue to choose from and these are fabulous songs,” said MacDonald. “And how fortunate I was. Everybody I called said ‘Yeah, I’d like to do that. That’s a great idea.’”
MacDonald is in a unique position to pay tribute to the area’s songwriters having been at the forefront of the island’s music and entertainment scene for almost 40 years as a founding member of Buddy & the Boys, The Rise & Follies of Cape Breton Island, The Cape Breton Summertime Revue and, most recently, the Celtic Colours International Festival.
A successful and varied career for sure and one that keeps on changing. With a new CD out there and other challenges he’s eager to take on, MacDonald recently announced his resignation as co-director of Celtic Colours, effective Friday. The baby of MacDonald and co-founder Joella Foulds, the Celtic Colours festival has been a true Cape Breton success story drawing thousands of visitors to communities across the island each fall for a nine-day celebration of Celtic music.
“It’s time for me to go build something else,” he said, noting it’s been a rewarding twelve years with the festival and also the longest he’s ever spent on one project and at one job.
First up on this latest turn in his career path will be tonight’s Songs of Home CD release celebration from 7-9 p.m. at the Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club on the Esplanade in Sydney. MacDonald will be joined by several of the songwriters featured on the album, including J.P. Cormier who did support vocals on his tune Gilgarry’s Glen, played the instruments on all tracks, and produced the whole project.
MacDonald said the album turned out better than he could have hoped for when he first began mulling the idea over after years away from singing.
“About two years ago, for whatever reason, I just really started to feel like singing again. Knowing that I didn’t want to go out and tour, the logical sort of expression that came to me was ‘You can record, you can sing doing that.’ And then it was ‘Yeah well, record what?” he said.
The answer came to him over time. He first decided he wanted to record songs by other songwriters and then came up with the idea of including the songwriters themselves. From a starting list of 50 or 60 songs, MacDonald whittled it down to 12 including Rita MacNeil’s Old Man, Steven MacDougall’s Spanish Bay, Sam Moon’s Girls of Neils Harbour and Duncan Wells’ Small Town Wind.
“Number one, I had to like the song. Number two, I had to be able to present the song in a different way than it had been recorded in the past. I wanted to be able to bring something fresh to the arrangements of the songs,” he said, adding, “I wanted to pay respect to the writers who were involved in the ’70s and ’80s but there’s so many wonderful new songwriters and there’s a whole new generation that’s picked up that torch. I really wanted to make sure that I was doing the songs that covered the whole spectrum of Cape Breton writers. That was really important to me.”
One special track on the CD is his version of Ronnie MacEachern’s Go Off on Your Way, a tune written in 1974 at a time when Cape Breton was experiencing a high level of outmigration. MacDonald said he wanted one song that all of the writers would sing support vocals on, and with Guthro’s help chose Go Off on Your Way, which he described as an amazing song that’s still relevant today.
“Today’s Cape Breton Post stories fit that song just as the stories fit that song in 1977 when it was first done by the Rise & Follies,” he said.
MacDonald said after 14 years without singing, he was nervous about going into the studio but he quickly found his voice and his friendships with those involved made the process run like clockwork. Dubinsky, for one, recorded his bit in 15 minutes.
“J.P was amazed that Leon could follow my phrasing so closely and Leon said ‘Well, the fact that we performed together 2,000 times probably contributed’ and J.P. goes ‘Right,” MacDonald recalled with a laugh.
Copies of Songs of Home will be on sale at tonight’s launch and can be purchased online at www.maxmacdonald.ca, at the Cape Breton Curiousity Shop in Sydney and at several other outlets on the island.