“It was an insane, six-week tour that went from Winnipeg to the Midwest to Texas to New Orleans,” says Ford, shaking her head. “We were making these long drives through ice storms in this wobbly van. It was incredibly stressful, and Jolie left the band over it. But it bonded the three of us together, and we went back to Vancouver, finished the record and released it on our own label, Porch Music.”
Holland contributed songwriting, arrangements, vocals and fiddle to the first Be Good Tanyas album, Blue Horse, and she also sings harmonies on Chinatown. She now lives in San Francisco, where she is working on a solo album, with help from Parton.
Canada’s CBC radio network started playing Blue Horse frequently in 2000, and eventually the prominent Canadian indie label Nettwerk licensed the album. That led to distribution in the U.S., England and Australia, and enthusiastic reviews and tours in all three nations. (Touring behind Chinatown will be limited, as NAME HERE is due to give birth to a child this spring.)
When I saw their performances at the February 2002 Folk Alliance conference in Jacksonville, Florida, and at the September 2002 Americana Music Association conference in Nashville, the trio was already playing most of the material on their second release, Chinatown. That album was recorded in bits and pieces between tours, and it sounds very much like their live shows and their debut disc.
“This is a natural extension of the first album,” Klein acknowledges, “but it broadens the focus a bit. This one has more gospel and blues on it, so we can showcase Frazey’s background as a soul singer. It has Olu Dara playing trumpet on a few cuts. ‘Horses’ [the next-to-last of the album's fourteen tracks] is almost like ambient music. And the songwriting is more ambitious.”
Indeed, the originals by Ford and Parton stand up well next to tunes such as Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around To Die”, Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight”, and the traditional ballad “I Wish My Baby Was Born”, which Uncle Tupelo recorded on the March 16-20, 1992 album.
Parton’s “Dogsong 2″, for example, is the straightforward description of the burial of her beloved dog Sherpa. Despite the subject matter, it maintains a surprising dignity, never asking for pity, never wishing away the facts of the matter. Parton’s deadpan, whispery vocal and Elizabethan language (“There he sleeps where moss does creep and no longer is he with me”) is framed by Klein’s slow-motion slide-guitar phrases, Doug Thordarson’s deep-throated viola and Parton’s own music-box-like ukulele figure. It’s a sequel to the first album’s “Dogsong”.
“The first ‘Dogsong’ is really a love song to my former self,” Parton confesses. “For years I was a free spirit and a vagabond traveler, and my dog was my primary relationship during that time. But there came a time when I had to stop traveling, move back to Vancouver and get a job. I was living in this depressing neighborhood where I had to walk past all these industrial shops to take my dog to the park. I felt like a part of me was dying that winter.
“I had a dream that winter about all these dogs in the park who were haunted by wishes for things they couldn’t have. Like there were dogs with short legs who wanted to run fast, and there were small dogs who wanted to be big. When I woke up the next morning, I started singing that song. I realized I couldn’t stay young forever. You can’t escape your past, but you can’t escape your future either. Time rolls on and before you know it, your dreams have changed.”
Equally impressive is Ford’s “In Spite Of All The Damage”, a song of fascinating contradictions. Over an acoustic guitar part that seems to falter in every attempt at momentum, she sings, “I wanted to say to you that I wanted to see your face again, that I wanted to hear you laugh…in spite of all the damage I’ve done.” She’s willing to accept the blame for deserting her former lover, but she knows that guilt doesn’t cancel out desire. Not even the realization that the relationship will never work can dampen her instinct.
So she confesses it all in a tentative soprano, pulled one way by regret and the other way by affection. That tension is reinforced by her stop-and-go acoustic guitar, Parton’s piercing mandolin, and Klein’s yearning guitar fills. It’s a song full of conflict, but it needs to be quiet, for these are admissions that can only be made in hushed voices.
By the time Klein added a mournful harmonica coda during their performance of the song at the Iota Cafe, all three women had their eyes closed — lost in the narrow space between private and public, swaying to the delicate groove.
ND contributing editor Geoffrey Himes recently won an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for his Baltimore City Paper article on Cyrus Chestnut and his No Depression cover story on Rodney Crowell.