Publisher accuses Symphony N.S. of banning Rita MacNeil biography at tribute concert

Rita MacNeil's son says talk of banning a new book about Cape Breton's first lady of song is nothing but a "big brouhaha."

The biography, I'm Not What I Seem: The Many Stories of Rita MacNeil's Life, was expected to be available for sale at an upcoming tribute concert by Symphony Nova Scotia.

But the book's publisher, Formac Publishing, issued a news release Thursday saying the symphony had "banned" the book and its author, Charlie Rhindress, from giving a talk ahead of Saturday's concert in Halifax.

MacNeil's son, Wade Langham, said he hasn't read Rhindress's book but simply preferred to have MacNeil's own autobiography, On a Personal Note, sold at the concert. The book was published in 1998 and later reprinted.

Room for 2

Symphony Nova Scotia reiterated Langham's wishes in an emailed statement, saying it has "agreed to focus on Rita's own autobiography, as well as merchandise from the concert's guest artists" at the family's request.

Publisher James Lorimer told CBC that cancelling Rhindress's appearance and book sales "in my mind, equals a ban."

Rhindress said he thinks there is room for two books about MacNeil, who died in 2013 at the age of 68.

"There is a big difference between an autobiography and a biography," said Rhindress, a Nova Scotia writer, actor and director.

"I talked a lot about what a trailblazer Rita was and how important she was to the women's movement but also how important she was to East Coast music. She was the first artist to really stay on the East Coast and have an international career."

Biography 'very respectful'

Born in Big Pond, N.S., MacNeil recorded 24 albums during her career, collecting multiple Junos, East Coast Music Awards and Country Music Awards along the way. Her CBC variety show, Rita and Friends, earned MacNeil a Gemini. ​

She was named to both the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada. 

Rhindress said MacNeil herself might have been too modest to take credit for many of the achievements he describes in his book.

In 2008, Rhindress wrote a play about MacNeil called Flying on Her Own.

He said they worked closely together and she came to trust him.

"I never would want to violate that trust ... I think it's a very respectful biography," Rhindress said.

Didn't realize there was a problem

As for his publisher's media advisory, Rhindress said, "I think ban is a very strong word."

Rhindress said he was disappointed fans attending the concert wouldn't have the opportunity to learn more about MacNeil by hearing his talk.

"I didn't realize we had a problem and I think Wade would probably say the same thing," he said.

A second concert for Flying on Your Own: A Tribute to Rita MacNeil is scheduled for Sunday at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax.