In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
The three women in the Be Good Tanyas–Trish Klein, Samantha Parton, and Frazey Ford–are all Canadians, but Americana is stamped on their musical passports. The band formed in 1999 in Vancouver, B.C., the heart of Cascadia, and soon released some of the best Appalachian-influenced music of the past two decades. Like kindred spirit Gillian Welch, the Tanyas made the old-timey sound new.
While gospel spirituals and hobo songs fired their imaginations at the outset, the Tanyas didn’t only look backwards to traditional sources. They looked across to their peers–Geoff Berner and JT Nero are two contemporary artists they’ve covered–and to the work of their parents’ generation (Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Neil Young). They even covered Prince, a musician pretty far from the folk/country music provinces (see our write-up of their Prince cover here). The Tanyas also wrote compelling original material, songs absorbed by urban concerns while sounding rural in origin, songs both light-hearted and dark-minded in turn.
Along with their feathery vocal harmonies, the key ingredients of the Tanyas sound are mellow mandolin, gritty banjo, and acoustic guitar. Fiddles and harmonicas make an occasional appearance, and a cornet slipped in through a side door at least once. Bass and drums they leave to hired hands, but not as after-thoughts: the band’s rhythmic groove is integral to their unique slant on traditional material, lets them make a distinctive statement on classics like “Rain and Snow.”
One complaint about their music is that there’s not more of it. Chalk it up, in part, to bad luck and medical emergencies, and partly to “creative differences.” But then again, we can be thankful that each of the Tanyas have explored their own solo projects, and this has helped keep the Tanyas albums so pure in essence. Frazey Ford recorded an album with Al Green’s former band (it’s more soul-influenced than country-influenced); Trish Klein formed Po’ Girl with Allison Russell; and Sam Parton, long side-lined with serious medical challenges, found a way to record and tour with Jolie Holland. (Holland co-founded the Tanyas in 1999, but departed during the making of their first record, Blue Horse.) All these extracurricular projects are worth seeking out.
The Tanyas may be over as a group, but it’s a good bet that covers of their originals will continue to emerge, and that their own covers will continue to find new listeners.
Be Good Tanyas–House of the Rising Sun (traditional cover)
We’ll start with the oldest song in our line-up. A song so old its origins are unknown, and no one is entirely sure what the song is about. Solid evidence suggests the house was a prison. Other evidence seems to prove that the house was a brothel. For the true obsessive (and God I know I’m one), there’s a full-length book about “The House of the Rising Sun” and its many adaptations. (How many songs are the sole subject of a book?) We can get right to the point and say this: the Tanyas have found a truly refreshing way to rock this classic.
Be Good Tanyas–Waiting Around to Die (Towns Van Zandt cover)
This is the most-played Tanyas track on Spotify, and that’s likely due its use in an episode of the hit drama series Breaking Bad. Some will always prefer the Townes Van Zandt original (Fun fact: according to Townes, the first song he ever wrote), but imagine that version dropped into Breaking Bad–it wouldn’t really work. In that context you need the Tanyas and their various intoxicants: haunting driving banjo, the wire brushes on the snare, the eerie unpredictable harmonies. Tension. Perfection.
Be Good Tanyas–Scattered Leaves (JT and the Clouds cover)
Attention teachers of Language Arts: maybe drop the lesson plans about John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath–or whatever dead poets are in season right now–and teach this song’s lyric instead. The key literary themes and poetic devices are there: “to everything there is a season,” “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and a dose of onomatopoeia. Your students will thank you.
The song’s writer, JT Nero, is relatively obscure, and this cover probably won’t pluck him from obscurity. His projects include JT & The Clouds, and Birds of Chicago, the latter with partner Allison Russell. Russell had teamed with Trish Klein of the Tanyas in a project they called Po’ Girl, so maybe we have Russell to thank for connecting the dots here.
The Tanyas adaptation is a gem, hitting the mark with its mournful but defiant vocals (and the scat singing over the outro is on point). You know this song is special because the Tanyas have recorded it in studio more than once. I recommend the live versions, however. This one, from the Pickathon festival in Oregon, is so correct that even the mandolin string that went slightly out of tune only adds to the magic of it.
David Beckingham with Twin Bandit–In Spite of All the Damage (Be Good Tanyas cover)
David Beckingham shares a city and a record label with the Tanyas. He co-founded the successful band Hey Ocean!, but this Tanyas cover appears on his first solo effort from 2016. Written by Frazey Ford for the Tanyas’ Chinatown album, “In Spite of All the Damage” is a quietly anguished heartbreaker. In contrast to the bare-bones original, Beckingham adds a number of layers and players to his exquisite interpretation without distracting from the song’s emotion and the story it suggests. In this live performance Beckingham is assisted by friends, including label mates Twin Bandit, aka Hannah Walker and Jamie Elliott. Oh, and two unnamed horn players who play their sweet but simple lines just right.
Be Good Tanyas–In My Time of Dying–Blind Willie Johnson cover
Back to the past again–the deep past. A song so old it has two names. The person who posted this live version calls it “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed,” which is fine, and perhaps the band introduced it that way. It’s just not the title the Tanyas used on their studio recording, released a couple of years after this gig.
Blind Willie Johnson usually gets the credit for this spiritual, though Johnson’s version (recorded almost a century ago) derives from earlier iterations. In the modern period, Led Zeppelin has the most well-known variation–it’s on Physical Graffiti, where the songwriting credit is given to all four Zeppelin members. Ethical questions aside, the Zeppelin version rules. If the Tanyas rocked out to Physical Graffiti you’d never know it from their cover. My guess is that they sourced this from the same piece of vinyl where they found “House of the Rising Sun”–Bob Dylan’s debut album. (Led Zeppelin likely had Dylan’s version in mind as well, not the Blind Willie Johnson.) In any case, the Tanyas make it their own in part by deploying a call-and-response treatment on the refrain (“well, well, well”), which adds a lovely evocative spirit missing from most other versions.