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Rankin finds his happy place in Music City

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His name may be synonymous with East Coast Celtic music thanks to the Rankin Family, but Jimmy Rankin is working in a new -- but just as rich -- musical tradition.

For his seventh solo album, the just-released Back Road Paradise, Rankin decided to go full-on country -- a sound he'd only flirted with on his last solo effort, 2011's Forget About the World.

"For that one, I was using more traditional country instruments, like dobro and pedal steel," he says, on the line from a tour stop in Prince Albert, Sask. "A lot of the songs were calling for that. I grew up listening to a lot of country music; it's always sort of been there."

Rankin, who calls Nashville home, found a producer, Bill Bell (Jason Mraz, Tom Cochrane), who was excited about his vision. "He was on the same page about going full-tilt and making a produced country record. We didn't want to make it generic; we wanted to make sure that there was still a lot of me on there.

"We were also very conscious about delivering single material, which was new for me," he says.

The result is a tight, CMT-friendly collection of tunes that wouldn't sound out of place on playlist that included, say, Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts. Back Road Paradise is polished, but not at the expense of personality. And Rankin is a different kind of cowboy; his twang is Nashville via Mabou, N.S.

The multi-award winner is a prolific songwriter; he'll have between 30 and 40 songs heading into an album. "I don't do really polished demos," he says. "If a producer can hear the song in that rough form, then I know it's a good song."

Happily, Bell was on the same page about that, too. "It'd be easy for me to do a demo and do all the parts, but Bill doesn't like to work that way. I've worked with a lot of people and they can't always hear it. Bill could hear it."

Rankin, 49, says living in Music City has energized him. "A lot of people associate it with country music, but it's really a music mecca," he says. "I've always wanted to live in a place that was all about music. It's a competitive place, but it's an amazing place. I wanted to be a part of that environment, and the timing was right so I moved down with my family."

And Nashville is just the place to be for a singer/songwriter who thrives on co-writing and collaboration. All 12 of the songs on Back Road Paradise are co-writes, and the album features guest appearances from the likes of Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy, who sings on Never Gonna Leave, and Grammy-winning country/bluegrass star Alison Krauss, who lends her pipes to Flames.

"Jim is one of my favourites. The song he sings is this Everly Brothers-style song -- it's very acoustic-driven. I wanted a singular voice, and I thought of Jim. And Alison, I thought Flames really suited her voice. It's a haunting sort of love song."

Rankin's love of collaboration shouldn't come as a surprise, considering his past. While he misses performing with his siblings, he's built something of a new musical family.

"I love collaborating with people. And I appreciate it. Musicians are really busy people, so I'm always thrilled and thankful when they make the time.

"I'm also a fan of these artists. I love Blue Rodeo; Greg Keelor sang on my first solo album. And Jim was very generous. Alison Krauss is such an accomplished artist with umpteen Grammys (28, to be exact). It's a thrill to work with these people."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 G3

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