Issue #50: Blue Horse by The Be Good Tanyas

January 30, 2017

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Blue Horse by The Be Good Tanyas
Released On September 25, 2001
Released By Nettwerk Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Guest Contributor Emma Kupa (of Standard Fare & Mammoth Penguins)

I have loved The Be Good Tanyas since I first heard them in my teens when a friend handed me their debut album Blue Horse on CD saying, “You’ll like this more than me.” I had never heard bluegrass music before and I found the harmonies and arrangements beautiful. Because of the way they sing, you can’t always make out the lyrics on first or subsequent hearings, but as you get to know the songs, certain phrases begin to resonate. There is something very reassuring about the BGTs’ music and lyrics. This is a band of women with integrity and huge talent that are not pretentious or contrived, but who make music that means something. The sound of the band is a mix of traditional instruments like banjos, mandolins, and violins with more contemporary sounding drum kit and lead electric guitar recorded and played in a tender, but powerful way.

There are quite a few traditional songs on this record which have been covered/arranged by the band and which are written from a male perspective. The fact that the BGTs didn’t change the gendered lyrics, as originally written, provides a wonderfully modern take on some of the stories in the songs. (In the song “The Lakes Of Pontchartrain,” the narrative becomes two women living together in a hut in Louisiana.) However, it is the original songs on the record that have accompanied me through life and provided me with a way to navigate relationships and see people differently. “Only In The Past” is an excellent song about losing someone and letting go. The words articulate something so fundamental to me without needing to say it directly and the song has helped me through many low points. “Momsong” is an example of a beautiful song with an unusual topic (a maternal relationship instead of a romantic one) that is both direct and poetic, while “Up Against The Wall” is another intriguing personal song that manages to combine great emotive songwriting whilst not being too downbeat.

I saw the Be Good Tanyas live in Leeds a few years ago (unfortunately, they were without Sam Parton who was recovering from a recent car accident). Hearing and seeing them perform the songs I had listened to for so many years filled my heart with joy. They played some of the songs from this album and I wished I could have sang along at full volume — the reverent and well-behaved seated crowd might have kicked me out, or glared at me until I stopped…

Blue Horse is an album I often turn to — I have it on vinyl, CD, and MP3 so it’s always available! It’s comforting and inspiring, and in this troubled world, for me, it offers a glimmer of hope.

Emma Kupa (@emma_kupa)
Winsome & Irresistible Twee Melodist

From left to right: Trish Klien, Samantha Parton, & Frazey Ford.

I remember hearing about The Be Good Tanyas right around the time Blue Horse was originally released, through a variety of music publications. They were intriguing to me, because the articles both made them sound like a country band and like a band I’d enjoy. Growing up, I had an instinctive reaction against country, but that was when all I knew of the genre was the overproduced schmaltzy crap I’d hear on the mainstream-country station my mother played in the car. As a teenager, I discovered the burgeoning world of “alt-country,” and was amazed to find that there were artists out there who incorporated standard country tropes into songs I really enjoyed. At first, it was the heavier brand of alt-country, the sort of thing made by indie boys who’d fallen in love with outlaw country, that I really dug (think Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks, that sort of thing). The Be Good Tanyas are also a group that incorporate country tropes I’ve been known to hate into a sound I like, but they’re pulling from older sources. Their covers of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” (first published in 1848) and Clarence Ashley’s ““The Coo Coo Bird” (released in 1929, and one of my all-time favorites from the golden age of pre-war 78s) go back to the dawn of recorded music and further, but the major influence I hear on this album is that of The Carter Family, who hail from my home state of Virginia, and whose tight vocal harmonies are all over the three-part vocal arrangements cooked up by Ford, Parton, and Klein on this album. I also find myself thinking of roots-folk singer Jolie Holland (who, I just realized, has performed with the Tanyas at times) and a local Richmond guy named Josh Small, both of whom use country instrumentation and songwriting techniques in service of a wider-ranging, more emotionally-centered sound. There’s a lot of that going on here, in songs like “The Lakes Of Pontchartrain” and “Momsong” especially. There’s also a little bit of that more rockin’ alt-country style you’ll run into on Uncle Tupelo records squirreled away at the end of the record; closing track “Light Enough To Travel” brings out a full electric band for the first and only time and, in doing so, becomes one of my favorites here. Don’t be mistaken, though — the more intimate arrangements of guitar, mandolin, banjo, percussion, and all those amazing vocals on the rest of the album still sound amazing, making you feel sometimes like you’re right in the middle of the studio with The Be Good Tanyas performing all around you. It’s the sort of feel that comes through on the best old-time country recordings — those of Hank Williams Sr, or Patsy Cline, or Johnny Cash. The Be Good Tanyas seem far more worthy heirs to that glorious legacy than the likes of Garth Brooks or Tim McGraw, regardless of where they land on that whole mainstream-to-alternative scale. This album is very much worth your time, no matter what you’ve previously thought of the country music you’ve run across.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

What do you mean there isn’t anyone named Tanya in this trio? I kid, of course. The happenstance of such actually being the case would hardly be surprising though, given the very close knit and interchanging nature of lineups in the world of roots music bands. Having not heard Frazey Ford (Guitar, Vocals), Samantha Parton (Banjo, Guitar, Mandolin, Vocals), and Trish Klein (Banjo, Guitar, Vocal Harmony), prior to this guest offering, but immediately picking up on the gentle a capella harmonization kicking off Blue Horse, my first instinct was to dig up more on this alt-folk outfit within the depths of roots retreat, No Depression. Surely a band this pure in its admiration of roots music, making a record containing no fewer than four traditional folk tunes, (“Rain and Snow,” “The Lakes Of Pontchartrain,” ““The Coo Coo Bird,” and Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna“), would have a presence in the archives. While not absent mention, The Be Good Tanyas didn’t rack up as many results as predicted but such status as an underrated gem is probably what makes Blue Horse an ideal fit for Off Your Radar because its degree of public stature is no reflection on the music and its character of performance. (Side note though, the band is no stranger to cross exposure via mainstream sync placement in shows and movies like Weeds, Because Of Winn-Dixie, The L Word, and even Breaking Bad.) No, indeed, as Blue Horse could easily coalesce with the likes of buzzed about folk bands of today like Lula Wiles, I’m With Her, or The Wild Reeds. The Be Good Tanyas evoke a slightly less polished quality over Blue Horse‘s 12-15 tracks than these present day peers. Yet, that’s not a dig at the ladies’ level of compositional or production related effort so much as it’s a note on their embrace of less meticulous sound shaping and a more “come what may” approach toward recording. Near the end of the record this is especially evident on a very loosely (live?) recorded track like “Up Against The Wall.” In this way, the album has just a bit more of folk’s “impromptu jam” aesthetic and, seeing as Parton came to know her would-be band mates over a shared passion for travel and performing — common elements of roots music history and regional style development — Blue Horse‘s mixing of traditional execution with alternative arrangement makes that much more sense.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

When I listened to The Be Good Tanyas’ Blue Horse for what I thought was the first time, I sang along with “The Littlest Birds,” a great, catchy folk-rock song. I scanned my brain and remembered that I knew the song from its inclusion on Jolie Holland’s excellent first record Catalpa, which I have considered for inclusion in Off Your Radar. A few minutes later, it was like a bolt of lightning: Jolie Holland was in The Be Giid Tanyas! Once I listened closer, I heard her distinct voice, standing out for its rich, unique tone, which is tough to do on a record full of beautiful voices. “Don’t You Fall” is a lovely ballad featuring Sam Parton’s sweet, breathy lead vocals and the amazing harmonies the Tanyas were certainly known for. Parton wrote “Only In The Past” with bandmate Frazey Ford, and I love the fiddle solo and the nostalgic, descriptive lyrics. In addition to original tracks, Blue Horse contains several traditional songs as well. My favorite of these is “The Lakes Of Pontchartrain,” sung and arranged by Holland. It’s a haunting, gorgeous interpretation — just guitar and banjo with Parton singing harmonies — that reminds me of the traditional folk covers Dave Van Ronk recorded over fifty years ago. I think there is a timeless quality to much of the record — it doesn’t feel grounded in a space and time in the same way Dixie Chicks’ Taking The Long Way does, for instance, which makes Blue Horse a perfect candidate for rediscovery through OYR.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Click below to watch the sepia soaked music video for “The Littlest Birds.”

An apposite video that skillfully matches the modest, intimate, and congenial feel the whole album wonderfully achieves.

Step 1: Look up The Be Good Tanyas on Wikipedia, learn your assumption that they’re a punk band is wrong. Step 2: Press play on Blue Horse, immediately learn your assumption that you’re entirely unfamiliar with their music is also wrong. It took another stroll through their Wikipedia page to find out why I knew “The Littlest Birds” practically word-for-word: the first Weeds soundtrack, which was in regular rotation in the show’s heyday, just after I graduated college. Going back and looking through the soundtrack’s track list has been a slightly surreal experience. Sufjan Stevens? I would have sworn I didn’t start listening to him until later. Same with The Mountain Goats. Then there are the left-field songs I haven’t heard since the Weeds‘ heyday but know by heart, like Peggy Lee’s “A Doodlin’ Song” and Nellie McKay’s “David.” But there, second from the end of the list, is “The Littlest Birds,” which sounds totally different as an album opener than it did surrounded by wryly funny tunes like “Little Boxes.” At the beginning of Blue Horse, the song has a very different personality — earnest and optimistic, like the moments that follow opening the front door for the first time on an especially sunny day. And while their arrangements of “The Lakes Of Pontchartrain” and “Oh! Susanna” stand out as new favorites, it’s “The Littlest Birds” that I keep coming back to, remembering what it was like to be just north of 20 years old and making appointments with friends to watch TV shows when they actually aired each week.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

How amazing is that first track “The Littlest Birds?” I mean I was very impressed with the album as a whole but this song kicks things off so hard. Those harmonies are so wonderful and the tempo is so compelling! I don’t normally actually feel an album draw me into it, but that is exactly what that track did. It did exactly what a truly great opening track should do. It set me straight about what I was going to be hearing from this album. The thing about these harmonies is that it’s mostly the two women singing and then that third voice comes in like the icing on an already delicious cake. Other highlights on the album for me were their renditions of “The Lakes Of Pontchartrain” and “Oh! Susanna,” but the truth is that I could listen to this whole album over and over. And I do believe I will!

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

The Be Good Tanyas have a great deal of respect and love of traditional folk, blues, and country. Influence and inspiration are joined in songs like ““The Coo Coo Bird” which references being robbed by the jack of diamonds and rye whiskey. “Jack Of Diamonds” is also a traditional gambling song, made popular by Blind Lemon Jefferson that has been recorded many times over, sometimes under the name “Rye Whiskey.” You can almost hear the harmonics of an old soul as the haunting voices of The Be Good Tanyas sing these stories and pass them down to another generation.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man

I have to admit I had a bit of a knee-jerk reaction when I heard we would be reviewing this. The Be Good Tanyas is one of those groups that Bob Boilen and All Songs Considered was always harping on about and I remember being annoyed by the name and unimpressed with the music. But I have a different relationship with “Americana” (even of the Canadian variety) now than I did when they were active. Some of this is due to my love of Hiss Golden Messenger, who is the best at what he does and has re-conditioned my ears to a well-deployed banjo among other things. Also, I saw former Tanya Frazey Ford open for HGM and sing with him — and she was darn good — so I was now curious to revisit her beginnings. When the first song began on my first listen I was like “Uh-Oh” because The BGT’s approach to harmonies seemed so wayward, even dissonant. But the album seemed to grow in confidence and grow on me simultaneously, like an overlapping time lapse. By the time I got to “Only In The Past,” I was just listening, a little lost in the music and not thinking about every little thing. It’s just beautiful, intimate and heartfelt, like the ultimate campfire song, and there are many other moments like that on the record. In the end, Blue Horse is very much a debut album, with some tentative moments, but now I can’t wait to hear everything else they did.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Unconventional harmonies & imaginative arrangements make their brand of folk something truly unique and splendid.

Standing in the aisle, the green umbrella stroller blocking other patrons, I leaned over, rubbing my daughter’s head to soothe her sleepy, mewling protest to the pause in our walking. At over a year and a half old, she was saying little words, putting together strings of gibberish that were sounding more and more like what English must sound like to those who don’t speak it, and I was growing a little concerned. Up until then, I played her the music I liked, staying more on the chill side but without thought to theme or language. Now that she was getting older, loving even more to bang on her keyboard and listen to me sing, I wanted to choose some things with her in mind. Problem is, I love music, and I just couldn’t stomach the insipid sounds of nursery rhymes, music “for kids” sung by syrupy mouthed high-pitched hippie voices strung straight out through the nose. Listening again to The Be Good Tanyas pulled back up The Ditty Bops, The Beatles, Fleet Foxes, all the bands I either found or aggregated into a giant playlist titled “Little Girl Jams” that still lives on my iTunes. It isn’t that this album, which I found through singer Frazey Ford’s L-Word appearance, is for kids. Rather, the string heavy Americana paired with the absolutely gorgeous voices harmonizing throughout form a familiar, comforting album, accessible to my young daughter as she grew up a bit, mouthed that gibberish into lyrics but still lovely and appreciated by me.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

Blue Horse is a perfect album for a lazy Sunday. It’s calm — no need to jostle your hungover brain with big drums or screaming guitars. It’s soothing (see “Momsong“). The syrupy strings of “Dogsong aka Sleep Dog Lullaby” take me by the hand to the gates of dream world. In fact, I don’t see how it’s humanly possible to listen to this album standing up. It’s definitely a lay-on-the-couch affair. So as you can see, the aforementioned “Dogsong” was written and performed specifically for me. I can’t say that I’m the most well-versed in the folk music genre. However, one aspect that I’ve always appreciated about folk music is that it’s timeless by nature. Blue Horse could just as easily be from 1967, 1997 or 2017. But the core elements would remain the same — great storytelling set to acoustic guitars, banjos, violins and just enough percussion to keep time, but not wake the neighbors. Appropriately enough, the rock-ish album closer “Light Enough To Travel” was almost like an alarm clock, waking me from my folk induced dream state.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

What’s truly remarkable about this collection of timeless folk music — besides its dangling, sprawling harmonies — is how experimental it gets in its hour run time. It’s no Eno or Zappa for sure, but it’s clear that this is no ordinary collection of folk music, even if they’ve retained the timeless feel and endearing spirit. The loose yet dense harmonies, the modern arrangements, the lyrical devotion; it all swirls together to create a brand of folk music that’s almost too modern for hardcore fans, yet too traditional for casual fans, something that’s clearly by design as you make your way through the record. The shrewd sequencing stagger-stacks the traditional songs between the originals, blurring the lines between what’s new and what’s old. This push and pull of the new and old starts off small in the beginning, but quickly snowballs into something tangible at the end with the amazing and jarring two-song album closer. The traditional “Oh! Susanna” comes in strong with that feeling of yesteryear, whereas “Light Enough To Travel” does every subtle trick in the book to overturn it, from the full-band backing to the nonchalant drop of “fucked up” in the second verse. No matter what the group throws against the walls om Blue Horse, they can’t hide that this was music made to evoke memories of porch jamming and campfire singalongs. Most experimental here just might be their commitment to never move away from that sentiment, even with countless musical tricks and innovations up their sleeves.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
The Roches by The Roches
Chosen By Doug Nunnally

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Laura Burroughs, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes

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