By David Kenney
Alone in a swamp, Kermit the Frog immortalized banjo music for kids with "The Rainbow Connection." His cheesy plea about "the lovers, the dreamers and me" was good, but the banjo’s twanginess turned such cheese into rich sap.
The banjo’s rich sound also props up many folk recordings, one of which is Blue Horse, the debut album from folk/bluegrass band The Be Good Tanyas. Smushed between carefree acoustics, the banjo lends a ’40s, honest sound to the album.
"I kiss it a lot," jokes Tanyas guitarist/mandolinist/banjoist Sam Parton, who with the Tanyas play the Night Gallery Fri., March 16. "I am so in love with banjo."
It shows on the record. From the swampy-spooky drawl of "Rain and Snow" to "Only in the Past"’s easy-plucking airiness the Vancouver band concoct a moonshine brew of relaxing spring-picnic sounds. Parton, guitarist/banjoist Trish Klein and guitarist/vocalist Frazey Ford make new old-style music your grandpa could handle and the kids can twitch to.
"I think it’s just natural of the attention we pay to old music," says Parton. "We’ve been listening to old music since a very early age."
Blue Horse definitely has the quality of an old 78, dusted out of a vintage record collection. Growing up listening to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Dolly Parton helped Parton to her old folk/bluegrass interest and spawned her obsession with the banjo–that, and seeing banjos on TV and wanting to be country music star with a cheesy name. But it wasn’t until Parton was older and traveled down to Texas and Arkansas that her banjo consciousness arose. Now she and bandmate Klein aren’t alone.
"I think it’s changing," she says of the banjo music scene. "I think there’s a real collective unconscious thing happening with banjo right now, especially with women. There’s like this whole banjo goddess movement happening."
While Lilith Fair Banjo Edition is a stretch, The Be Good Tanyas are swirling in buzz for Blue Horse from media and record labels. Parton is weary of record labels. She says the band won’t be compromised.
"I don’t think we’re corruptible. Don’t [let] them bullshit you, don’t let them scare you," says Parton. "I really admire people like Ani DiFranco who are like ‘fuck that’ and just did it herself."