Be-Good Tanyas - taking a wagon train's rhythm
Sam Parton is talking about the Be Good Tanyas’ rise from the smallest, most intimate venues to large theatres and how it’s changed their presentation.
"Of course, these days we have our dance troupe with us," she says. "But we try to keep the show down-home."
If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the sound of a leg being pulled. Recalling the trio from Vancouver’s Scottish debut in the Tron Theatre Bar in Glasgow in 2002, the idea of them organising anything more than the guitars, banjo, mandolin and minimal percussion that they use to accompany their folksy, backwoods songs sounds as likely as blue snow.
The whole Be Good Tanyas ethic is anti-showbiz, anti-consumerist and up to a point, anti-mod cons. This is a group, after all, who boast precisely no mobile phones between them. You might say that they’re living the life of the rural America that their songs hark back to.
"Well, we get on quite a lot of airplanes," says Parton, who is customarily described as ‘no relation to Dolly’. "It would be hard for us to function without them. But when we’re at home there’s no TV or radio. It’s not that we’re against progress. I mean, we put out CDs, so we’re part of this huge music industry. But I just like to live without distractions. All I’m really interested in creating is the stuff I can’t find out there in the mainstream."
It was, it seems, ever thus. Before getting together in the late 1990s with the group that evolved into a trio of herself Trish Klein and Frazey Ford, Parton lived the self-sufficient life, working as a tree planter, growing her own food and living in the mountains. And it’s a life, she says, that she’d like to return to at some point.
The Be Good Tanyas - the name comes from a song by Parton's friend, Galway-based Obo Martin McCrory - emerged just before the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out and started a kind of gold rush back to American music’s basics.
"We were lucky that suddenly there was great interest in the kind of music we play," she says. "We didn’t start out with any intentions of being part of a cultural renaissance, though. In fact, we didn’t have any plans at all. We were a group of people who liked playing music together – it was all very loose - and it just so happened that this old-time sound that we have was what developed through these informal sessions we were playing."
In creating their own world and making the music that they themselves wanted to hear, the group were pleasantly surprised to discover such a big audience waiting for them. Their first two albums, Blue Horse and Chinatown, sold strongly in America as well as at home in Canada, and their latest, Hello Love, carries an endorsement from no less a figure than Emmylou Harris.
"Even being considered as part of the same kind of music as someone like that is amazing for me personally," says Parton. "Because I’ve listened to country music all my life. When I was young, it was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the older I got the more the interested I became in the earlier stuff, going back to the Carter Family and the real roots of the music. I think I always had a fascination for the old ways. I always wanted to live in a covered wagon."
As one of the group’s two main songwriters, Parton has quite an input into their repertoire, but she doesn’t necessarily press the case for her own songs.
"The way we choose what we sing is like the music itself, fairly organic," she says. "We don’t rehearse very much, so new stuff tends to filter in during soundchecks or backstage on the road and it’s just a case that some songs stick and others don’t.
"For instance, there was a song of mine that Frazey [Ford] was really keen on but we just couldn’t seem to find a way of doing it that really suited the song. So I was happy to leave it out. We have some great arguments. People say, But you do all these lovely harmonies. But that doesn’t mean that we all agree on everything. It wouldn’t be a band if we all got along all the time and I think the fact that we’re three different personalities actually adds something to the music."
So, there are no dancers. There’s no Be Good Tanyas orchestra waiting in the wings. It’s just the three of them "plunking away" on the same old instruments and creating what they hope comes across as honest, simple and intimate music. It might be honest, simple and intimate music written by Prince – the latest CD has a "hidden" version of the Paisley Park dynamo’s When Doves Cry – rather than a frontierswoman with a broken heart. But given the Be Good Tanyas treatment the songs’ origins don’t matter in the end.
"As long as we can make people feel moved and comforted, we’ll be doing our jobs," says Parton. "We want them to be entertained, too, but what's more important, the way the world is right now, people are looking for something that’s real and comforting. Society’s panicking. So we want our audiences to leave our shows feeling better."
From The Herald, November 16, 2006