Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan
It has now been 17 years since my father, Gene MacLellan, passed away. I was just a kid, 14 years old, watching my dad fall further and further into the turmoil of mental illness at a time when people were still not really talking about that. Now, having been alive longer without my father than with him, I feel like it’s time to truly celebrate his life and stop mourning my losses.
This January I was given a great opportunity to celebrate the life and music of my father with the tribute to him put on by Music PEI and CBC. Famous for his songs, at least here in Atlantic Canada, my dad shied away from the spotlight. He preferred to write the songs and let other people sing them. The most well known example of this, of course, was Anne Murray’s version of Snowbird.
As with anyone, Gene’s success was made up of talent, skill and luck. Had Snowbird been released any earlier, he would have missed out on the new Canadian content rules of 1970-71 that required radio and TV broadcasters in Canada to play a minimum of 30% Canadian-made music. For Snowbird, this meant an enormous amount of airplay which soon crossed the border into Detroit and before you know it, my dad and Anne had a massive hit on their hands.
Anne was kind enough to say a few words about Gene for the tribute in a bio-video that showed my dad playing on Singalong Jubilee as well as some amazing footage of him in the early 70’s at his old farmhouse and in a little boat fishing with a friend. This kind of stuff is priceless to me, filling in more pieces of the mystery that my father is now to me.
On stage with us for the tribute was a whole cast of friends and fantastic musicians. The inimitable Ron Hynes was there singing his own song written about my father at the time of his unexpected passing, Godspeed. Lennie Gallant was there as well, and I remember how much my dad loved him and his music. I even had the chance as a kid to go with dad to see Lennie perform with his band at the rink in Rustico.
A number of local up-and-comers like myself were there as well. John Connolly was the musical director for this show, and his love for my father’s music has always been obvious, so this was a great chance for him to share that. Meaghan Blanchard blew the roof off with her version of Faces, her voice is just absolutely incredible. Dennis Ellsworth and the Haunted Hearts brought the barroom beat to the occasion which was especially great on Face in the Mirror.
A close friend of Gene and of our family, Scott Parsons was there singing the songs that he knows so well. Scott is the greatest collector of my dad’s tunes, having known him so well and retained songs for us that were never recorded.
Perhaps the most touching moment of the night was Jack MacAndrew’s talk. He brought tears to the whole room, including himself, and it was so lovely to hear these personal stories about Gene that only Jack could know.
Of all the things that happened during the lead up to this show, the most amazing part for me was just the fact that so many people remembered and loved my father. All the people across the country that called in to CBC Radio with their stories, the people who would stop me in the street or send emails with their memories… It became clear to me that there really was something special about my dad. Seventeen years after he left us, people were still waiting patiently to tell their story, their version of Gene.