The Tanyas string pearls

'New-time' folk band has a delicate sound and old-time toughness

Maybe Portland's gotten blasŽ about tree-huggers and hippie chicks. Maybe in Britain they're just more exotic.

That still doesn't fully explain why three women from Canada who play 'new time' folk and bluegrass can sell out London's Royal Festival Hall, which they did in February, but in Portland this week will play the tiny Dante's Caffe Italiano.

The Be Good Tanyas are Vancouver, B.C.'s Samantha Parton, Trish Klein and Frazey Ford. They all sing and play a variety of acoustic instruments (banjo, mandolin, slide guitar), mixing old-time string band classics and their own songs. When they arrive in town to promote their second CD, 'Chinatown,' humble digs won't bother them, because they're already down to earth.

They met in the late 1990s at tree-planting camps in the mountains of British Columbia, and they toured the United States in the spring of 2000 in Parton's 1977 Dodge van. Parton told the Tribune by phone that she's looking forward to visiting Portland, where she housesat (and dog-sat) for a friend, folk singer Myshkin, 'somewhere off Hawthorne' last summer.

'It was in the middle of finishing 'Chinatown,' ' she says. 'We did a lot of mixing over the phone.'

She was impressed with the city: 'I think Portland's just about to burst as a real center for art, culture and music.'

The band, which has benefited from the revival of American roots music precipitated by the soundtrack to 'O Brother Where Art Thou?,' plays with the delicacy (and hush) of the Cowboy Junkies.

The band name comes from their friend Obo Martin McCrory's Irish rebel song 'Be Good Tanya.' The Guardian of London described their sound as 'both 2002 and 1802.'

When Parton was living in her propane/gas hybrid Dodge with her dog, she once picked up a hitchhiker who became her boyfriend. Things are tamer now that she travels by tour bus.

She tries to keep her poetic gift going, but it's hard.

'I do a lot of writing on the road, but it's more purging stuff, keeping a journal,' she says. 'I need more solitude for songwriting.'

It's an unpredictable art: 'I've been working on 'The Bunker Song,' about these old naval bunkers in Port Townsend, Wash., for about two years now. But 'Dogsong (Sleep Dog Lullaby)' on (the first CD) 'Blue Horse' took 10 minutes. It just came out fully formed.'

Does she ever get tired of the image of finger-picking on the porch in vintage threads? What about putting on some gold platforms and heading out to the mall in an SUV?

'We pretty much have hippie blood in us,' Parton says. 'I hate malls; I hate SUVs. But I've got nothing against platform shoes.'

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