Cape Breton Island is in the northeast of Nova Scotia. Waves of Scottish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries created a distinct regional form of Gaelic music on the island that still thrives today, in part due to the Rankins.
The Rankins come from Cape Breton’s small coastal community of Mabou. Five Rankin siblings achieved massive success recording as The Rankin Family in the ‘90s, leading what became a global wave of interest in traditional Celtic folk music. Their second LP Fare Thee Well Love was a legitimate phenomenon, certified 5x Platinum and winning the Rankin Family Juno Awards over Canadian icons like Celine Dion, Neil Young and The Tragically Hip.
While the whole family was musically gifted (there were actually 12 Rankin children total), John Morris Rankin stood out as an icon in traditional Celtic fiddling. In a 1972 documentary called The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, a young John Morris helped draw attention to what was seen as a dying art before the mass resurgence that would make the Rankin Family stars years later.
In 1999, the Rankin Family announced they were going on hiatus. Just a few months later, John Morris’s truck swerved off a cliff into the Gulf of St. Lawrence while he was driving his teenage son to a hockey game, and he died at the age of 40.
Molly Rankin is the lead singer and guitarist of indie pop band Alvvays, and the daughter of John Morris Rankin. Only 12 when her father died, Molly told The Guardian: “At the time of his passing I was really growing as a fiddle player, and afterwards there was this sign of life through me and through my playing that everyone noticed… But it was also a lot for me. I felt like I wasn’t at the stage where I had my own style; I was just trying to retrace his steps, and that became fairly exhausting.”
Eventually, Molly and fellow Cape Bretoner Kerri MacLellan would join with three other young musicians from similarly remote Prince Edward Island and form Alvvays. Molly doesn’t play fiddle in Alvvays, but she does write traditional Scottish music in a sense, if Teenage Fanclub is your idea of traditional.
While Alvvays’s shiny indie pop is sonically comparable to other current acts like Best Coast and Cults, Alvvays have quickly proven to be their generation’s preeminent Big Star legacy torchbearers with tracks like “Archie, Marry Me.” This is the kind of song I wish I could write, seemingly so simple and yet achieving that rarest form of power pop perfection.
Though Alvvays is obviously not a folk act, there’s an undeniable Celtic quality to Rankin’s crystalline soprano that lends a certain magic to their sound. Beyond that, I believe the jangle pop I’ve always been drawn to originated in the unmistakably American marriage of blues and Celtic folk. Look up the 1937 Lead Belly song “If It Wasn’t for Dicky,” which was his take on an Irish lament for a dead cow. It’s basically R.E.M., half a century earlier.
So maybe Molly Rankin just fronts a particularly great indie pop band. Or, maybe what she’s doing is closer in spirit to her father’s legacy than it would appear at first. I personally think she’s helping to keep an important branch of that musical legacy alive.