It’s not that Jimmy Rankin puts his heart on his sleeve, but he’s sure not afraid to roll’em up and consider the state of love in the modern world. With his fourth solo CD, Forget About the World (Song Dog Label), Jimmy Rankin serves up a decidedly jubilant songwriter record that celebrates love and life with a fervour. Rankin takes listeners on a musical journey with a dozen songs imbued with a strong sense of imagery that captures the essence of emotions, moments where things change – for the better, for the worse, forever.
“I knew I wanted to make a country record, but not a straight ahead country record,” he explains. “I wanted it to be something more, something quiet in places, something reflective – and maybe something that did feel from the heart. People have a hard time categorizing my music. I’ve had an eclectic upbringing - Hank Williams Sr, rock n’ roll, Celtic... And to me, country music is all those things.”
“My last record (2007’s Edge of Day) was very rootsy, and I wanted to keep that, but I also wanted to make it bigger... make it something people who were more country or mainstream would be drawn to as well. I want to share all these feelings, these realizations with people to make a connection based on something in their heart...’Cause I’ve been making records for 20 years now – and I’m still learning about the power of what records can do. The way they bring people together, give them hope, make them sing. To me, that’s one of the greatest gifts music can give.”
As the album’s first single, a mercurial pledge to fidelity, “Here in My Heart”, is quickly climbing the country radio charts, it appears Rankin is making good on his desire. Working from a restrained acoustic opening, the track builds as he taps into the frustration that marks long term affairs of the heart. It is in the trenches that bonds become strong, and Jimmy Rankin bears witness to that in his vocal. Reinforcing that ardour and passion, there is a lead guitar part over the song’s second half that is at once molten and shining. Given the reflection of the song’s emotional core, it’s obvious that it’s not just any guitar player, indeed, it’s one of country’s brightest stars and players - Keith Urban.
Urban is a long-time fan and vocal supporter of Rankin. But their personal connection goes back to the 2002 CCMAs in Calgary and a late night hotel jam that has since become legendary. The two toured together in 2003. “When I arrived in Nashville last March, Keith was one of the first guys I bumped into. He’s a real standup guy and an amazing guitar player. As luck would have it, he agreed to guest on the track. He brought a lot of that great energy that comes from playing onstage every night. It’s a whole different kind of vibe, very live. I like to have that kind of punch on my records, because I think it hits people differently, and Keith’s playing adds a very cool dimension to the song.”
Indeed, there is an immediacy to the songs on Forget About The World. Not only is there the tug of the world in “Walk That Way” (that’s a duet with rising alt-country songstress Serena Ryder), the sweeping hope in the uncertainty in “Waiting On A Sign,” and the little details of how one’s supposed to live life on the intimate “Maybe Nothing,” but there’s the raw ache of “The Hurtin’ Part,” giving one a sense of the complexity of a life truly lived.
“I wrote “Walk That Way” with a girl (Christina Martin) from Halifax... We’d been talking about the paths our lives had taken, and she was looking back on her days in Austin being married and going out on an adventure. I liked the idea of traveling, passing through towns alone or with that one other person for hours and hours at a time. It’s an adventure, but it’s more... And I’ve never recorded a duet with a girl like this. Given the story and who that woman is, I wanted someone with guts – and that was Serena, whom I’ve been a fan of since I first heard her.”
What draws artists like Urban and Ryder to Jimmy Rankin's music? In part, they are drawn to his sheer skills as a songwriter and a performer – skills that, as both a member of the Rankin Family and a popular solo artist, Rankin has honed to a cutting edge. But Rankin doesn't just wow audiences with his impressive catalogue of hits; he draws the crowd and his peers in with his unique charm and his ability as a lyricist to capture the everyday turmoil of living and loving—with candor and wide resonance.
Since Rankin has spent more time in Nashville, he's connected with a growing circle of musical kin, refining his already impressive chops as a songwriter and drinking in the spirit of country music in a place where it is more potent than anywhere else.
That spirit is present in abundance on Forget About the World, and to help Rankin blend all those influences into a singer songwriter kind of country, producer Bill Bell was enlisted. Known for his work with Jason Mraz, Tom Cochrane and Justin Nozuka, the guitarist/mixer/producer set to work creating an album that highlighted the intimacy of Rankin’s vocals and the imagery in his songs.
Eschewing obvious formulas, the pair balanced shimmering full-on production with the more airy folk-tinged ballads that mark the second half of the CD. “He understands that I want my records to be an interesting listening experience, that I want to perform songs that really hit home for people… it means a lot to me that I get letters from people about how my music has been a soundtrack of sorts during big moments in their lives – birth, death, weddings, break ups...”
Recorded at Bell's Soleil Studio, Orange Studio and Canterbury Music in Toronto in late 2010, Forget About The World boasts an impressive backup band: Gary Craig on drums and percussion, Gary Breit on piano and Hammond organ, guitarist Colin Cripps, bassist John Dymond, fiddler Craig Eastman, and Kenny Greer on pedal steel.
Bill and I went into it open... with a bunch of songs and a general idea. We work-shopped some of the songs, got proper demos – and in that the colours emerged. You have to trust the process of it. Sometimes it’s live with a drummer, bass player and maybe a piano, then we overdubbed layers. The acoustic stuff was often just me, Bill, and a couple of guitars – for better or worse.
With a deft hand and commitment to the moments he sings of, worse isn’t an option. Certainly there is the tentativeness of the man trying to get his woman to come back in “Louise” and the willingness to embrace being wrong in “What I Wouldn’t Give,” but perhaps the most haunting performance is the tale of “Colorado Dave.”
“That song’s been kicking around in my head for 20 years,” laughs the almost shy songwriter. “And it’s not the kind of thing that would ever be on the radio, but it’s a great story; something about it just stays with you. It’s based on a true story related to Rankin by friend and historian, Jim St. Clair. “It’s about a guy from my home town, the son of a farmer who got up one day and left, landed in Colorado, and ended up riding with Jesse James back in the 1800s. Eventually, he escaped from the gang no one was supposed to leave alive, took off in the middle of the night, and stole back home to his mother, who had set a place for him at the table every Sunday since the day he left.”
While the songs on Forget About The World run the gamut from country/pop to more stripped down singer songwriter offerings, it wasn't a particular style, a particular form, or a particular emotion that informed his writing. "When I sit down and write, I just want to write a good song."
And there are plenty of those on Forget About The World - songs that are universal enough to resonate with just about anyone who hears them, but delivered in a way that's so personal they seem as if they were written for you alone. Rankin is adept at imbuing his songs with a certain sense of romantic reality and at putting complex emotions into words his audience can easily interpret through the lens of their own experiences and find reflected in their own lives and loves. “Whether it be a story, conversation or whatever” says the dark-haired guitarist, “it has to make me feel something. It needs to be real to me, whether it’s a slice of my life, something I’ve heard, or someone I’m writing with has experienced.”
Things that are real seems to be the litmus test for Jimmy Rankin, a journeyman star who believes in following his muse, digging a little deeper to consider what others miss and one who firmly believes in the power of songs. Forget About The World is the latest chapter in the evolution of someone Canada knows by heart – and who will continue to grow in the music.