Rolling Stone magazine didn't splash a ton of ink on Kate and Anna McGarrigle, but they did say this: "The McGarrigle sisters are probably the finest singer-songwriter team ever to go ignored by the American public."
What's intriguing about the overlooking – by no means was it abject disregard – was that the Canadian songstress duo was complicit in its own under play, and may not have even minded the lack of popular acclamation, to say nothing of cash-box triumphs. From the spry, friendly memoir Mountain City Girls, a refreshingly decipherable joint effort from Anna and third sister Jane – the candid, incandescent Kate died of cancer, at the age of 63, in 2010 – we learn of the priority the sisters placed on family solidarity, sense of place and soulful satisfactions. "Cold feet and swollen ankles," writes Anna, referring to the emotional and obstetric reasons a series of make-or-break concerts was cancelled in the spring of 1976. "We cancelled the tour and thereby committed career suicide."
Well, not suicide. The critics certainly noticed Kate and Anna's eponymous roots-pop debut: London's Melody Maker deemed it the best pop record of 1976, and the album placed fifth on the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop Critics Poll (ahead of Joni Mitchell's Hejira). But the record "languished in the warehouses," in the words of Anna.
The swollen ankles were Kate's, caused by the carrying the baby who would be Martha, the younger sister to Juno-winning musician Rufus Wainwright. "I don't remember us giving much thought to 'the record,'" Anna continues. "Life was going on regardless."
Did you catch that? One the greatest Canadian pop records ever made is basically dismissed by Anna with air quotes. But, yes, something was going on: Life.
Mountain City Girls begins with 20 pages on colourful ancestors. On the maternal side, the Latrémouilles were "humorous, irreverent and generally upbeat people … united as a family." On the paternal side, the McGarrigles – including great uncle Jim, a radio-network publicist who in letters to friends wrote snappish commentary about the New York arts community – are described as "people of wit and charm" who loved to laugh and who were "excellent company."
Those delightful DNA strains have passed through to Anna and older sister Jane, for their book is a sociable and harmonious offering – a non-regretting, red-wine read full of anecdotes and antiquity, with the well-turned phrases of a generation who took care of language.
Of course, the compositional flair will come as no surprise to fans of McGarrigle-made music, the best of which is found on the sweetly sung debut LP, stocked with Heart Like a Wheel (famously covered by Linda Ronstadt), Talk to Me of Mendocino and Jigsaw Puzzle of Life, a quaint, twinkling, such-is-life waltz about relationships that their lose their fit over time.
The McGarrigles' jigsaw puzzle includes a doting, charismatic, piano-playing father; a caring but never over-indulgent mother; a split upbringing in a Montreal flat and a country home in the lower Laurentians; and the shenanigans and coming of age of three sisters in the Quebec of the 1950s and 60s.
There is a Forrest Gump quality to some of the happenings: Anna seeing Dylan go electric at Newport Folk in 1965; Jane living in San Francisco during its Bohemian prime and the early days of its computer-industry scene. Throughout, there is a sense that whatever the McGarrigles did, it was simply meant to be.
"It hasn't been bad," Kate told the Globe and Mail in 2004. "In terms of music, we've done what we wanted."
In terms of music, the sisters – Jane too; she produced the 1982 album Love Over and Over and helped write material – matched incisive, intelligent lyricism on family life with fetching melodies. Mountain City Girls is unique in that we are 315 pages into a 321-page book before we even read about Warner Brothers signing Kate and Anna in 1975. It's all lead-up and context to what should be considered a national treasure of song.
After Kate and her husband, fellow songwriter and Go Leave target Loudon Wainwright III split, Anna wrote the song Kitty Come Home, a beckoning for her sister to return home from New York to Quebec, where "Nothing's changed, all's the same."
Jane talks about the old McGarrigle country home in Saint-Sauveur, in the family now for nearly 70 years and where ghosts and memories have influenced recent generations. "We're clearly here because we need to be," she explains. And there is a lot to be said for that.
Brad Wheeler is a Globe and Mail arts reporter.