Al Rankin doesn’t settle for good when he knows he can achieve great.
Sitting in his historic limestone house nestled inconspicuously on a country road north of Kingston, Al speaks passionately about the music he showcases in his Inverary home and to the broader community..
“My whole thing is, I don’t want good music here, I want great music,” says the retired drama teacher as a pellet stove hums softly in the background.
Talking from a tastefully decorated living room, Al, 68, is a well-known member of the Canadian music scene. He is the artistic director of three local groups that bring music to public theatres, school auditoriums and his private home.
Not far from his armchair is a curtain hung in a doorway to stop heat from escaping the rooms used by his family. Outside the curtain is a sunken showroom with a stage called The Rankin Gallery; home to eight house concerts a year by musicians on tour.
Lined with old church pews where hundreds of the best musicians in the world have played, the room feels like a significant part of Canadian history. It is a charming space that fits 65.
“There’s an incredible number of musicians out there trying to make a living and the only way to make money is to perform live concerts,” says Al about the purpose of the space. “It’s tough for them.”
Picking up where he leaves off, Al’s partner Brenda Lyon notes, “This way, they can come here and play a concert and make a thousand dollars. They get a free place to stay and a warm dinner and breakfast. They’re just so appreciative. It’s a good feeling.”
Gesturing to the walls where dozens of posters are displayed of bands that have played in The Rankin Gallery, the couple is clearly proud of the music performed in their home and the musicians they room and board. Personal messages of gratitude are scrawled across the posters from bands such as the Good Lovelies and solo acts such as Serena Ryder and Rose Cousins.
Some of the musicians who have played at the gallery have travelled from as far away as Serbia, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Europe. Most are from Canada and the United States.
For a house on a quiet country road in Frontenac County, it feels like the heart of the global music scene.
“We get a wide-range of musicians coming to The Rankin Gallery concerts” says Al with pride.
“His biggest job is saying no because everyone on tour wants to stay here,” adds Brenda, 67. “We get 1,500 requests a year.”
“We do end up saying no to a lot of people,” responds Al who doesn’t invite musicians to perform in his home; rather, they ask him.
“It’s a lot of work,” adds Brenda about the organization, promotion and hospitality required for each show. “But it’s great when the concert is going.”
Asked why they open their home to the musicians and the public, Brenda answers kindly, “We’re supporting a lot of Canadian musicians. It is unbelievable how hard they work and how hard it is to make a living. We’re trying to encourage them.”
“It’s great for the community,” adds Al. “A lot of people who come to our house concert wouldn’t attend a concert at a larger venue in town. They love the closeness to the performers. It’s a whole different experience for members of the audience.”
Asked to pay a nominal admission fee of $20 to support the musicians, guests travel from as far away as Trenton, Smith’s Falls and Westport. Within 12 hours of a show’s notice, they are always sold out.
“It’s not just for our neighbours,” says Al about the memorable performances in his home. “It’s sort of a secret. A secret a lot of people know about.”
“When people come here, they know it’s going to be great because Al is very picky about who he brings here,” says Brenda.
“We’ve never had any problems with the concerts or people coming to the house, even when we let them wander upstairs,” she says gratefully. “It doesn’t bother us at all. It feels a bit like a community hall most of the time which is fine.”
“Of course, we don’t have any cutlery left,” adds Al with a laugh.
In addition to hosting house concerts, Al and Brenda also bring musical acts to the area through their company, Rankin Productions. The work involves booking a headline act (such as Pete Seeger, Leon Redbone, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie), renting a theatre, selling the tickets and arranging the band’s hotel rooms.
“We only do that a couple times a year,” says Al about the bigger shows.
Al and Brenda are also involved in a volunteer organization called Live Wire which arranges six musical shows annually in Kingston and supports musicians performing in local schools.
Referring to all of the performers they have met over the years, Brenda says with a smile, “It’s like we have 100 sons and daughters now.”
Happy to host and support the best performers in the world, Al notes, “It’s unfortunate that we’re saying no to some incredible people. We just can’t fit them all in.”