Be Good Tanyas
Be Good Tanyas
The Be Good Tanyas are a contemporary old-time music trio from Canada. The group has had popular and critical success in English-speaking nations including Australia, the United Kingdom, and United States. What attracts listeners is the charming, decidedly laid-back charm of the women's sweet vocals and deceptively simple arrangements. They owe much of their success to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), which championed the Be Good Tanyas and played the group's debut recording so often that it eventually attracted a record deal as well as fans.
Each member draws on diverse musical experience and interests; each has been a member of other musical groups representing a wide variety of genres. Klein and Ford, for example, had played in a funk group called Saltwater June. (Some sources call this group Saltwater Jane.) Klein grew up in Winnipeg, where her early musical tastes gravitated to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. It was after attending a world music festival as a teenager that she started playing guitar. Ford and Parton initially met while working in the Canadian Kootenay Mountains on a seasonal tree-planting crew. Parton told Sing Out! magazine that singing kept people working. "I heard this other woman singing 'I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water.' It was Frazey, and it sounded so good that soon we were singing together." Ford said the seasonal workers "form these intense bonds. You're creating a new society in the middle of nowhere. In the evenings, there's nothing to do but sit around the campfire … and sing songs. It's a great place to hear new music; because everyone comes from all over, from the fringes of society, and they all bring boom boxes and instruments."
The women kept in touch after leaving the camp, and wanted to continue playing together. The Be Good Tanyas, formed in 1999 in Vancouver, British Columbia, initially consisted of Jolie Holland, Parton, and Ford. When Saltwater June broke up, Klein joined the trio. Holland, who helped form the group but quit shortly thereafter, certainly qualifies as a de facto Tanya, although she's no longer an official member of the group. She has played on both their albums and is credited with introducing them to Obo Martin's "Be Good Tanya," the song from which they derived their name.
The band started playing weekly at a local thrift store in exchange for clothing. "We were like a hillbilly garage band at first," Klein told Sing Out! "We were very jangly, always on the verge of falling apart. We played any songs we knew or barely knew—Libba Cotton, Bessie Smith, Woody Guthrie, our own stuff.… We were surprised that people liked us."
The band covered traditional songs like "The Lakes of Pontchartrain," "Oh, Susanna" and other old chestnuts; members also wrote original tunes drawing on those same musical traditions. They were given free studio time to record what would become Blue Horse, but in the midst of the project were asked to tour for six weeks with singer-songwriter Bill Bourne. The tour took them through the American Midwest and down to New Orleans. Holland reportedly left the band early in the tour, fed up with life on the road, according to Ford.
Upon their return, the band went back to recording, and released Blue Horse on their own in November of 2000. Although independent record stores helped draw attention to the recording, it was the CBC's frequent airplay that brought the band into the spotlight. An executive from the Nettwerk label heard a track on the radio and gave a copy of Blue Horse to Terry McBride, the label's CEO. He told Billboard that "I fell in love with [the album]. Since then our entire company has fallen in love with it."
In 2001 Nettwerk promptly rereleased the album in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia. "The first album was a wonderful vehicle for us," Parton told Billboard. "We played all of these festivals in North America, and last year we went to England twice and to Australia.… We didn't think we needed a producer. Most of the songs had been road-tested. Also, what we do is so simple that it doesn't require a lot more than just a chart on the wall, which is what we had."
Although their fare is decidedly old-timey and Appalachian, the women have never made a secret of their eclectic tastes, which include Tom Waits, Jimmy Cliff, Wilco, Mary J. Blige, and Lou Reed. "Unlike bluegrass, which places a premium on instrumental virtuosity, old-time emphasizes good songs and good singing, the Tanyas' strengths," wrote Geoffrey Himes in Sing Out! "They're anything but purists. They've been fans and performers of punk, funk, hip-hop and electronica and still admire those genres." In fact, Ford quipped to Dirty Linen magazine that "we listen to everything, except for folk." In an interview with the Guitarist Online website, Klein said, "we all have our different tastes, and therefore bring different things to the group, but we all have a common musical bond as well. A desire to play stripped down, simple music in the old tradition," she told Guitarist.
For the recording of Chinatown the label executives essentially gave them a deadline and left them to their own devices. "We gave them the money; they delivered the record," Ric Arboit of Nettwerk told Billboard in an article timed for the sophomore album's 2003 release. "There's a natural charm that comes out of them playing, and I didn't want to mess with it. The album is fantastic."
The critics agreed. Michael Tearson in Sing Out! said, "The Be Good Tanyas sound like nobody else. Chinatown is a wonderful album that has completely confirmed my suspicions about the Canadian trio's special wonderfulness." Anna Lazowski in Herizons commented on the "unusual, soul-lai[d]-bare sound that has seen artists from Emmylou [sic] Harris to the late Joe Strummer singing the band's praises." In Dirty Linen magazine Tom Nelligan described it as "Canadian contemporary songwriting meets American gothic folk," and opined that "[i]t's also a sound that would find a happy home in a David Lynch film." On the PopMatters website, Scott Waldman applauded the group's "uncanny knack for digging the soul out of every song they play. Whether it's Townes Van Zandt's 'Waiting Around to Die' or the old traditional 'Oh Susanna' or one of their own magnificent compositions … The Be Good Tanyas possess entirely any song they sing. They do this in the simplest way and with such ease that it hardly looks like they have to try at what they do.… It is precisely that lack of pretension which allows The Be Good Tanyas to stretch out so brilliantly in their live performances and on their albums.… They're not so much performers as they are presenters of an emotion that can stand naked and honest in front of an audience."
In late 2004, the group announced plans to take a temporary break from touring. "None of us are especially ambitious," Ford said in a Sing Out! interview. "We were just lucky someone was interested in us. If they hadn't been, we probably would have continued to travel around, joining and leaving various projects and leading the life of the starving musician. This music is the kind of music you play in your living room with friends after dinner. The fact that hundreds of people are willing to pay money to hear us do that amazes me."
For the Record …
Members include Frazey Ford , guitar, mandolin, vocals; Jolie Holland (born in Texas, left group, 1999), fiddle, vocals; Trish Klein , guitar, banjo, vocals; Samantha Parton , guitar, mandolin, vocals.
Group formed in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 1999; Blue Horse released independently, 2000; signed by Nettwerk, 2001; Blue Horse, rereleased, 2001; Chinatown released, 2003; took break from touring, late 2004.
Addresses: Booking— Paquin Entertainment, website: http://www.paquinentertainment.com. Record company— Nettwerk Records America, 8730 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 304, Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Website— Be Good Tanyas Official Website: http://www.begoodtanyas.com/.
Blue Horse, Porch Music, 2000; reissued, Nettwerk, 2001.
Chinatown, Nettwerk, 2003.
Billboard, July 21, 2001; February 8, 2003.
Birmingham Post (England), February 15, 2003.
Dirty Linen, June-July 2003.
Herizons, Spring 2002; Summer 2003.
Paste, February-March 2004.
Sing Out!, Fall 2002; Summer 2003.
US Newswire, January 17, 2003.
"The Good Life," eye online, http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_11.22.01/music/begoodtanyas.html (February 22, 2004).
"The Be Good Tanyas," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/concerts/b/be-good-tanyas-030312.shtml (February 22, 2004).
The Be Good Tanyas Official Website, http://www.begoodtanyas.com/ (February 7, 2004).
"China Girls: The Be Good Tanyas Take Their Bluegrass Blues to Chinatown," eye online, http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_03.06.03/music/begoodtanyas.html (February 22, 2004).
"Interviews: The Be Good Tanyas," Guitarist, http://www.guitarist.co.uk/interviews/inter_page.asp?ID=7039 (February 22, 2004).
"Life is Not a Museum: Interview with The Be Good Tanyas," Rasputin Music, http://www.rasputins.com/manifesto/interviews/begoodtanyas0503.html (February 22, 2004).
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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