Born in Halifax, but raised in the little seaside village of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, within sight of both Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, sisters Cassie & Maggie MacDonald are heirs to the traditions of Maritime Canada. On their new album, Sterling Road, they show a remarkable deftness for interpreting these traditions, from the fiery reels of Cape Breton to the lilting polkas of their home region, the old Irish and Scottish songs that nestled into the seabord towns on the coast, and the traditions of Scottish Gaelic that still have a home there. The MacDonald’s music is a beautiful blend of all these Celtic sounds, anchored by the powerful, lively fiddling of elder sister Cassie MacDonald and the beautiful guitar and piano work and clear-as-a-mountain-spring vocals of her younger sister Maggie MacDonald. This is the kind of family music that has always fueled the Maritimes, and there’s a very real closeness in this music that can only come from siblings making music together.
Sterling Road was produced with cutting-edge Canadian composer and roots musician Andrew Collins, who keeps the focus on the remarkable energy and power that Cassie & Maggie MacDonald put out on stage. It’s undeniable that Cape Breton fiddle and piano is some of the most rhythmically powerful traditional music in Canada, but Cassie & Maggie bring the same rhythmic punch to tunes of their own composition, like opening track “Jimmie’s” which Cassie wrote for her uncle Jimmie MacDonald and the family farm in Antigonish that’s been in the family since the 1800s, or “Hurricane Jane” which Cassie wrote as a nickname for her sister! One of the sweetest tracks on the album, the “Starlight Waltz” is done in homage to the sisters’ celebrated fiddling grandfather Hugh A. MacDonald, who recorded the tune on the “Celtic” music label in Montreal in 1935. Not many people can lay claim to a heritage like this that ranges from scratchy old 78rpm records to fireplace polka sets in a little village by the sea in Nova Scotia. It’s all part of the uniquely Canadian heritage that Cassie & Maggie MacDonald inherited and are now paying homage to on an international scale.
The other remarkable discovery on this album is the beautiful singing of both sisters. Maggie MacDonald, who leads the songs, has wonderful interpretations of traditional ballads like “The King’s Shilling,” which laments the cost of war, and the traditional Scots Gaelic milling song “Buain A’ Choirce” (Reaping the Oats). Maggie’s voice rings pure and clear, like the great singers of Scotland and Ireland, and together the sisters have the loveliest harmonies. Cassie MacDonald also contributes a song she wrote, the charming “Sweet Melodies,” and, together with Maggie, reworks the ending of “Sisters,” an ancient song of two sisters torn apart by the love of a man, which Cassie & Maggie tackle ironically. Sterling Road is a great joy to listen to, and its even greater joy is that the music of the MacDonalds still rings clear in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and now throughout the world.