Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the April 10,
2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Tanyas Sure to Be Good
Although they’re signed to a Canadian record company
now, Frazey Ford — one of the three "Be Good Tanyas" —
says her band evolved organically. The Tanyas’ debut, "Blue
was actually an album they had recorded on their own and intended
to release themselves. But then Canadian radio affiliates of the CBC
in British Columbia began giving it airplay which led to their deal
with Nettwerk records.
"People told us we should be playing together and so we started
jamming," says Ford, speaking from a tour stop in Boston last
week. The Be Good Tanyas had played the Somerville Theater the
night with Doc Watson. The trio is hitting the road, hard, in their
dusty old van, in support of "Blue Horse," a collection of
original tunes and traditional folk songs. Their mostly acoustic sound
is an eclectic mix of blues, traditional folk, and classic country.
"We began playing music together for our own pleasure, and it
was just a natural, homegrown, organic evolution," she says,
to a great extent, they still play music for their own pleasure.
The band has its genesis in 1994 in rural Nelson, British Columbia,
where Frazey Ford met Samantha Parton. "We both had this real
hard labor job — tree planting," she explains. "One day
that spring, Sam ended up planting next to me and she heard me
so she kind of sang along. Later, back at the campfire, we ended up
sort of jamming together."
Ford, who plays guitar, says the seasonal and very lucrative work
of tree planting is popular with musicians and gypsies who find
in British Columbia. The pay is good and the work is good for the
soul and the muscles, as crews re-plant the hillsides that logging
companies have stripped bare.
Later, Ford and Parton, who plays guitar, mandolin and banjo, met
Trish Klein, who plays guitar and banjo. All three contribute vocals.
And it’s something about the harmonies generated by these three voices
that has struck a favorable chord with audiences around the U.S.,
Canada, and the U.K. Ford insists she’s a bit mystified and at a loss
to explain the band’s grassroots success, which in recent months,
has included radio airplay on CBC in Canada, NPR in the U.S., and
the BBC over in England.
"We knew each other as friends but it wasn’t until five or six
years later that we started jamming together again," Ford says.
"I moved to Montreal, and Samantha moved down south to New
and Trish moved to Vancouver. Then, out of poverty, Sam and I ended
up back in Vancouver. We were all sort of looking for jobs and trying
to figure out what to do with our lives." Ford studied anatomy
and physiology for a while and wanted to train as a midwife, "but
I kept coming back to music," she says.
Asked when the trio realized that they had something special with
their interpretations of traditional folk songs, Ford says there
a single revelatory moment.
"We all come out of this tradition where we sit around at people’s
houses and play music," she says, "and there’s a lot of really
beautiful moments that happen. Mostly, it was the response we got
from people. They were saying this is something we really haven’t
The Be Good Tanyas were more or less formally launched in spring 1999.
The group played at coffee houses and house concerts around British
Columbia, and played in front of thrift stores as buskers.
While Ford really admires contemporary folksinger Ani
DiFranco’s absolute grass-roots approach — she has six or eight
employees at her own Righteous Babe record company — she says
she and her band mates in the Be Good Tanyas are finding out what
kind of label Nettwerk America is. "They’re somewhere between
an independent label and a major label, big enough to market us in
ways that smaller labels can’t," she says. "They let us have
free rein creatively, that’s the main reason we went with them."
The Be Good Tanyas will record a second album for Nettwerk in May.
While the band hasn’t yet found mass appeal compared to the
success of the soundtrack to "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?,"
the Be Good Tanyas have been getting plenty of airplay. Asked if she
thought "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" was an anomaly, Ford
it’s part of a larger trend, perhaps a response to so much empty pop
music — much of it created and consumed by teenagers — that’s
"I think it’s part of a larger trend, because we see it happening,
for example, with Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. Nowadays their
music is more mainstream, but it’s been bubbling under the surface
for a long time."
As a group of 20-somethings, what sparked the three girls’ interest
in traditional songs and blues and old country tunes in the first
"We all came to this music in slightly different ways," Ford
says. "My mother grew up in Nebraska and her family is very
my grandfather played the fiddle and we moved to Canada because my
father was a draft-dodger. My mom always sang old songs around the
"We’ve all explored all the different genres. When I was a
there was a huge folk revival in Canada and everybody was listening
to their parents’ albums," she explains, offering Cat Stevens
and Otis Redding as examples. Then I picked up an old Bessie Smith
tape and started going further back.
"Sam, on the other hand," she continues, "just comes from
a very musical family and she fell in love with old-time music, and
even moved to the South to learn more about it."
"I think there are a lot of young people out there who are
simpler, more raw forms of music and I think it’s a response to the
over-production of music in the 1980s and ’90s. I think people in
general are searching for their roots through this music," she
Ford says predecessors to the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?"
phenomenon include the interest in Cuban music sparked by another
film and album release. "The Buena Vista Social Club." Even
Bob Dylan, she adds, "was listening to Woody Guthrie, and if you
look at the roots of everything, it all goes back to the blues."
The Be Good Tanyas just got back from a two-week tour of the United
Kingdom, including concerts in Ireland and Scotland.
"In Ireland, music is a part of who they are," she observes,
"and they were fascinated with what we do because `Rain and Snow’
is a really old tune and I guess we sort of put new influences on
Ford says the trio’s name comes from a song by Hobo Obo Martin
"Be Good Tanya," which has become a gypsy anthem of sorts.
Its story line is about running away from home and leaving parents
and parental expectations behind.
"To me the song was always an anthem for keeping on being an
and for us it was meaningful, we all struggled for years and years
and we were all broke and living this kind of crazy life," she
says. "The funny thing about being a musician is everybody thinks
you’re a bum until they start hearing you on the radio and then
you’re a musician. I don’t feel like any more of a musician than I
did 10 years ago," she says, "when I was playing small coffee
houses and playing in peoples homes or playing with friends."
Pressed to explain what makes the Be Good Tanyas versions of "Oh
Susannah," "Rain and Snow," and "Coo-Coo Bird"
— all traditional folk songs, to be sure — so special, Ford
says it may lie in their abilities as songwriters steeped in
and old-timey music. "We have a fascination with old music, but
we also write our own songs with no real intention of making them
sound old. And it just comes across to audiences as an amalgamation
of new and old sounds."
This summer, the trio will be making the rounds of the folk festivals.
They’re already booked at two prestigious ones in Britain, Glastonbury
and the Cambridge Folk Festival. "We’ve gotten these great offers
from a lot of folk festivals, and we’re trying to balance it all out,
as it all has been pretty overwhelming," she says. "It’s all
been happening so quickly for us."
— Richard J. Skelly
Titusville, 609-466-6664. $10. Sunday, April 14, 7:30 p.m.
Park, 732-775-9144. Monday, April 15, 9 p.m.
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