The Be Good Tanyas

Heavenly harmonizing twang trio get strung out on Canada Day


the BE GOOD TANYAS performing as part of GRRRL FOLK at Harbourfront’s CANADA DAY CELEBRATIONS with Jenny WHITELEY, MIA SHEARD, EMBER SWIFT, MARTINA SORBARA and ANDREA KOZIOL, at Harbourfront Centre’s Norigen Stage (235 Queen’s Quay West), Monday (July 2). 2 pm. Free. 416-973-3000.

THE BE GOOD TANYAS at Ted’s Wrecking Yard (549 College), Tuesday (July 3). $8. 416-928-5012.

Rating: NNNNN


vancouver’s be good tanyas nar-rowly missed becoming the next Dixie Chicks. Fortunately, the Vancouver-based Nettwerk label — which gave the world Sarah McLachlan — just signed the trio of Frazey Ford, Trish Klein and Samantha Parton, saving the group from an almost certainly disastrous Music City make-over fate. “Phew,” gasps Klein over the phone from Vancouver, “thank god! This woman from Nashville saw us at a show in Boston. Afterwards, she took us out and got us drunk on margaritas, and the whole time she kept talking about the Dixie Chicks.

“She was saying things that I guess she thought would really impress us, like, “I’ve gotta get you girls working with the Chicks — oooh, they’re gonna love you!’

“She went on to say how she was going to have us on Country Music Television,” continues Ford, “and how she could get us some country music award because she was on the jury. I don’t think she really understood that we aren’t really interested in being anyone’s country music poster girls.”

With their glorious harmonies and tasteful string stroking, the three West Coast tree-planting pals have packaged their love of singing old-time country, blues and gospel tunes into the beautifully realized Blue Horse (Festival) debut, which is currently among the hottest selling indie roots albums in the country.

No doubt the virtually non-stop airplay they’ve received on CBC Radio has helped. Once you hear the way Ford wrings the soul out of Broken Telephone or how Parton casually breezes through the gently lilting Littlest Birds, it should be clear they deserve all the attention they’re getting in so-called “Americana” circles.

What a laugh — you can’t get much more Canuck than the Tanyas. Heck, they’re travelling across country to liven up Harbourfront’s Canada Day celebrations Monday (July 2), and they’ll be sticking around for an encore gig at Ted’s Wrecking Yard on Tuesday (July 3)

Whether outdoors or in an intimate club setting, the Tanyas’ sharply drawn narratives have a certain timeless ring that makes them almost indiscernible from the traditionals they cover. Thing is, nothing the Tanyas sing ever seems like an ancient archival find. They’ve got too much soul for that.

“There’s something about the way Sam phrases things and plays guitar,” suggests Klein from her Vancouver home. “I’m always amazed by the songs that she comes up with — they sound like they could be 40, maybe even 100, years old.

“I’m not consciously writing in a pre-war style,” offers Ford, “and I don’t think of our songs like Up Against The Wall or Light Enough To Travel as old-timey, but I guess that’s the way they come out of us.

“Country and folk music is what I grew up with. Then at 18, I found a Bessie Smith tape and started getting deeply into the blues and gospel. There’s such beauty in the rawness of the music made by people like Blind Willie Johnson. You can feel his strength in the sound of his voice. I love that.”

Singing old spirituals and prison work songs from sun-up to sundown each day while planting trees had a lasting effect on how Ford puts across a song. Although Parton is becoming increasingly proficient picking mandolin and the rhythmic thrust of Klein’s bluesy banjo groove is what drives the Tanyas’ music, their power isn’t in their individual virtuosity.

The magic happens when they connect in harmony. That vocal blend can stop you cold, as Blue Rodeo’s Bob Egan will attest.

“Well, you know I’m Mr. Jaded,” smiles Egan. “But when I first heard the Tanyas on CBC it was, like, whoa! Who the heck is that? I wrote down their name and made a note to pick up their album — which, of course, I never did.

“A couple of weeks later I walked into work at Capsule Music and the Tanyas’ CD was on the counter. As it happened, they’d just been in the store looking for an accordion and left their disc.

“That night, I sent them an e-mail message saying I’d be in Vancouver in two days and asked if they would sing on a couple of tracks for my new album. We hooked up and everything worked out amazingly well. Those voices, man, I don’t think they know how special they really are.”

Such fortuitous coincidences seem to be occurring around the Tanyas with alarming regularity lately. Thus far, their most unlikely career boost has come through a Brooklyn doll ‘n’ dildo vendor called Toys in Babeland.

“We played this gig in Brooklyn,” Ford recalls, “and some girls who bought our disc at the show started playing it at the sex toy shop where they worked. Right away we started getting CD orders from folks in New York saying they heard our music playing at Toys in Babeland.”

One of those people turned out to be a woman who works for BMI, and she liked the album enough to book the Tanyas a showcase gig at the Living Room in New York.

“The Toys in Babeland girls even came by and gave us some skimpy T-shirts. You see, it really does pay to give promotional CDs to people in stores.”

Not all the attention that they’ve drawn has been welcome. There are a few banjo and mandolin-obsessed stalkers from Arkansas and Alabama who’ve been known to embark on 17- hour road trips to see their favourite Tanya up-close-and-personal.

More troubling of late has been the advancing creep of the record label A&R types who picked up the scent of the Tanyas’ raw talent. Don’t worry, though. The matching blond bleach jobs are out of the question for the Tanyas.

“Can you imagine us on CMT,” giggles Klein, “with our greasy hair and frumpy clothes, between Shania Twain and Faith Hill videos? I can see it now, tummy tucks, boob jobs, stylists, illegitimate children with our personal trainers…. Nah, we’re happy here in Canada, eh?”

Just the sort of group you’d want to see at a Canada Day bash. It’s little wonder they’re becoming regulars at such festivities.

“Last year we did the Cannabis Day show in Vancouver,” confides Klein, “and boy, that was a disaster. Everybody — from the organizers to the promoter and the sound crew — was totally cooked. It was the most chaotic, worst-sounding event you could possibly imagine.”

“My microphone wasn’t working,” sighs Ford, “and I watched this guy trace the cable back and forth between the stage and mixing board at least five times. He was so wasted, by the time he’d get to the end of the chord, he’d forget which microphone it was and had to go back and check it again. Hilarious.”

timp@nowtoronto.com

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