So it was that Parton found herself waking up in a nylon tent at the crack of dawn one morning in the Kootenays. She grabbed three saddlebags, each holding hundreds of tiny seedlings, and climbed aboard the truck that took the crew high up on the slopes. Up on “the block,” as they called the clear cut, the view was spectacular; you could gaze out over miles and miles of sharply folded landscape, blanketed with dark green pines and buttoned with glacial lakes.
But the work was back-breakingly hard and numbingly boring: You knelt down, dug a hole, planted the seedling, stood up, scrambled several yards sideways and repeated the process. Parton yearned for something, anything, to break the tedium. So she was delighted to hear a woman’s voice from further down the line of planters. It was a lilting soprano warbling “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water”, the old blues recorded by Aretha Franklin, among others. Parton was so struck by the emotional edge of the voice that she ambled across the steep slope to meet this woman. It was Frazey Ford.
The two began spending their evenings together in the camp, a collection of a few dozen tents encircling a central, canvas dining tent and a big bonfire. It was around the fire that Parton and Ford discovered how well they sang together on the old blues and country songs they both liked.
“You’re working so hard and all you have is each other, so you form these intense bonds,” Ford says. “You’re creating a new society in the middle of nowhere. In the evenings, there’s nothing to do but sit around the campfire, smoking pot, playing hackysack and singing songs. It’s a great place to hear new music, because everyone comes from all over, from the fringes of society, and they all bring boomboxes and instruments.”
“There was so much music in those camps,” Parton recalls fondly. “You could hear everything from Melanie to Liz Phair. But what impressed me the most were the old songs by Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Muddy Waters. It made me want to find the real roots of American music. I wanted to hear harmonica; I wanted to hear banjos; I wanted to hear women singing. So when the tree-planting season was over, I would get in my van with my dog and guitar and head south, stopping at communes and selling veggie burgers out of my van at festivals.”
Klein had her own brief brush with tree planting, but she met Ford in a music class at Selkirk College in Nelson, a small bohemian town in south-central British Columbia. Parton showed up around the same time, and the three women realized they were learning more from the open-mike nights at the S.U.B. Pub than they were from their college courses.
“I was in an acid-jazz-funk band called Fluid,” Ford recounts. “It was fun — everybody was dancing — but so much was going on in the music that I felt crowded out. So I decided to go in the opposite direction. Rather than create a wall of sound, I wanted to create a rapport with the audience. I know a loud band can convey emotion, too, but since I’m a singer, I want to emphasize the voice. Plus, it’s more of a challenge to convey something with the least resources. One old blues guy and a guitar conveyed more than 90 percent of the music today.”
“Silence has always been a crucial part of my life,” Parton allows, “silence, space and slowness. After those years of tree planting — living in the bush with few clothes and few belongings — I never got used to filling up my life again. The same thing is true of the band; we still have the same handful of instruments that we started with. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, we were inundated with wanking guitars and screaming singers, but we learned that when you have one voice that’s pure and beautiful and then you add a second voice, it opens the door to a whole new world.”
“Playing with women gave me a safe place where I wouldn’t be criticized,” Klein says, “where it was OK to be a beginner. With women I didn’t feel I had to play a lot of fancy chops to prove myself; I could experiment more and find my own sound. And it worked. I never tried to play like Earl Scruggs; I never tried to fit that Appalachian style. I just tried to complement Sam’s and Frazey’s voices.
“Now I have the confidence to play with anyone, but I still run into situations where a guy shows up and starts adjusting the knobs on my amp without asking, as if he were doing me a favor. I have to tell him, ‘What are you doing? Don’t do that.’”
It took a while before the Be Good Tanyas came to be, though. Ford, who had been in a trip-hop band in Montreal, was in Saltwater Jane, an all-female soul sextet, with Klein. Parton had toured with punk-poet Chris Chandler as the Illegitimate Daughters of Johnny Cash. But none of these ventures felt as vital as the informal music they were making in living rooms. Nothing else inspired their songwriting as much as the wish to bring something new to the next session.
In the summer of 1999, after they had all returned to Vancouver from various journeys, Klein, Parton and Parton’s friend Jolie Holland started performing as a trio called the Be Good Tanyas, named after a song written by their friend Obo Martin. Whenever she was visiting Klein’s Chinatown house, Ford would sing harmony with the group.
Their first gig was at a thrift store. “This crazy Turkish lady said if we’d play in front of her vintage clothing store every Sunday, she’d set up a sound system and pay us in clothes,” Parton explains. “We’d do everything we knew or barely knew — Libba Cotten, Bessie Smith, Woody Guthrie, songs by friends of ours, our own songs. We were like a hillbilly garage band at first, very jangly and always on the verge of falling apart.”
They had cut about a third of their first album by the spring of 2000, when Parton convinced the other three to go on tour as the opening act for Bill Bourne, an older, bluesy, Canadian singer-songwriter.