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Two cars as fit as a fiddle

Petrina Gentile, The Globe and Mail

Kyle MacNeil
Profession: Musician (fiddle, guitar, violin, mandolin)
Age: 49
Hometown: Cape Breton, N.S.

Notable achievements

He and his siblings have released 14 CDs beginning with their first album, The Barra MacNeils in 1986

Studied classical music at Mount Allison University

The group takes its name from the Scottish Island of Barra, the ancestral home of the MacNeil clan

Their latest CD, The Barra MacNeils with Symphony Nova Scotia (Live), was just released. Another CD, recorded at Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton last year, comes out this fall 25th anniversary tour includes dates on May 11 in Sackville, N.B., on June 22 in Summerside, P.E.I., July 6 in Meaford, Ont., and July 11 in Edmonton

For 25 years, The Barra MacNeils have dazzled crowds with their riveting performances of Celtic music at sold-out concerts around the world. To mark their 25th anniversary, the group of six siblings from Sydney Mines, N.S., have released a new CD called The Barra MacNeils with Symphony Nova Scotia (Live).

Even though they’ve come a long way from their humble beginnings, they remain true to their roots. Musician Kyle MacNeil keeps it low key, driving a 2006 Nissan X-Trail and a 1998 Toyota Camry.

The Barra MacNeils and their original touring van, found in a local Cape Breton auto junk yard. In photo: The Barra MacNeils (left to right) Sheumas MacNeil, Kyle MacNeil, Lucy MacNeil, Boyd MacNeil, Stewart MacNeil (missing from photo: Ryan MacNeil). Photo by KV MacNeil.

You’ve been in the music business for 25 years – shouldn’t you be driving something a little newer and fancier?

That’s about as fancy as it gets! It’s like a good guitar or a good violin. If you like it, you just hate to get rid of it.

Why did you buy a Camry?

At that time, we had a Corolla before that. We were just checking out cars, drove around and found this car and loved it. It’s a four-cylinder, but it’s a great motor for that year. Good car overall.

I bought it when it was four-five years old. It’s still in good shape, too, actually. It’s a comfortable car. It’s not too luxurious. The ordinary person can own one.

Why did you buy the X-Trail?

We’re in the country and we needed something to get into the driveway with the snow. We have a long driveway. And as far as winter driving and heavy snow, the X-Trail was a great vehicle – it never left us stranded anywhere.

I really like it except for the coffee holders. Most coffee holders in cars are in the centre, but in the X-Trail they were on the outside right by the passenger door and the driver’s door so when you took a turn your coffee would spill all over the place.

Did you ever use the X-Trail for touring?

No. When we were touring, we used to have a van for the band.

The very first van we had was an old Chevy van. It became known as the Barra Van. It actually appeared in a movie with Gordon Clapp and Ann-Marie MacDonald – a movie shot here in Cape Breton called Island Love Song.

It wasn’t a fancy van, but we did a lot of travelling in it. We had a few vans over the years, but once the performing started to take off there was more flying and renting. Now, our driving is mostly in the east coast of Canada and New England.

Did any of the vans ever break down on the way to a gig?

Of all the times we’ve been travelling, we’ve only had one gig when the van broke down. We’ve been very lucky. No mishaps on the road. No accidents.

We missed more gigs flying than driving and lost a lot more gear flying, too. At least with the older vans, if you had a problem, you didn’t have to be a mechanic to figure out how to get it going.

Back when we used to have a winter – when it was really cold – we had problems with the carburetors freezing and starters not working. You always learned all the tricks of how to keep them going and keep them on the road. Nowadays, everything is controlled by the computer so it’s really hard to pinpoint something. It usually ends up being a tow job now.

Do you fight with your siblings over who drives?

No. We all take turns.

The earlier days – when we were young and foolish – we’d do the drive to Toronto without stopping. We’d just keep changing drivers and in 18 hours we’d get there. Nowadays, we’ll take a break after about seven-eight hours travelling on longer trips.”

What was your first car?

My first car was a late ’70s Ford Grenada with a 302 in it. That was a fast car!

I paid about $3,000 for it. It was in really good shape. … I remember on Kelly’s Mountain I had a Camaro on my ass and managed to take him until I got to the top of the mountain and when I looked in my mirror he had smoke burling out from his motor. It was a great car!

My second car was a Monte Carlo in the late ’80s. It had the fancy hubs on the rims. I always liked a nice driving car like that. After that, I was married and we owned a Corolla, then the Camry, then we decided to try the X-Trail. We’re in the SUV route now and we’re working our way up a truck if we can get an oil well to go with it.

Any speeding tickets?

One time I got pulled over and I was speeding. I had the violin in the backseat and the Mountie saw the fiddle and he started asking me questions about it.

He was into fiddle music and Celtic music and he just gave me a warning and said slow down. So the fiddle got me off! I always carry it in the backseat!

What do you listen to on the road?

I listen to a lot of different stuff. The stereo is one of the most important things to me because we spend a lot of time in cars.

I’ll listen to Celtic, jazz, classical and CBC radio. … When we’re recording CDs oftentimes, when you’re mixing or mastering, we’ll all pop out in our vehicle and pop it in.

If it’s not up to par in the car we go back in the studio and change it if there’s too much bass or treble. It’s where you spend the majority of time listening to music.

If I can bring you the keys to any car what would it be?

My dream vehicle would be a truck. But with gas, it would be a really expensive route to go. …

Every car I had I really loved. But you’re always looking for the next one. Of course, it’s like a kid in a candy shop. I’m not allowed to go into car lots or music stores.