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.