“It’s like old times!” exclaims Samantha Parton of her reunion and collaboration with former Be Good Tanyas bandmate Jolie Holland. “It’s better than old times for me,” adds Holland. “I just love this band and the crew. It feels very personal. We both, in the intervening years, we’ve grown so much as musicians, and humans, and women, and friends. Putting out a record now doesn’t seem like such a mysterious process, and that’s wonderful.”
The pair released Wildflower Blues on September 8th, a triumph which resulted from perfect timing. Touring for Holland’s sixth solo album, 2014’s Wine Dark Sea, had wound down, while Parton was still recovering from two serious car accidents that left her unable to play music and struggling to connect with her creativity. Holland reached out to Parton, and the seeds of collaboration were sown.
When Parton felt stronger, the pair set out on a low-key tour, to road test their new songs and to ease Parton back into the grind of sound checks, long drives, and late nights. “It was, and to some degree, still is, a struggle to just play guitar or piano or sing,” Parton explains. “I have full-body issues from a car accident and some brain issues, and some other neurological problems that affect my hands and feet and stuff. It was a real battle. I really didn’t want to let anybody down, and I was scared of being a person who couldn’t pull her weight. One thing I love and appreciate about Jolie is that she was okay with that, and she encouraged me.” With confidence gained from the successful run, the duo set about recording their album.
“It was super cool to reunite for this. I work on songs with other people, but I haven’t done this thing Sam and I do where it’s completely from scratch. It’s how you imagine songwriting together, the whole process happened between us,” says Holland. The duo, inspired by Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and New Morning, as well as their shared admiration for Townes Van Zandt, created a well-rounded collection of tracks that explore just about everything under the Americana-flavored rainbow. “It’s interesting to think about what Dylan’s timeline was for a lot of my favorite albums of his. Nashville Skyline and New Morning were made right on top of each other,” Holland explains. “A lot of the tracks on New Morning have this incredible looseness to them, like the band barely knows the songs, and I love that. I also love filler, it’s a way for the musicians to show off. We have this dorky track on the album called ‘Gooseberry Rag’ and it’s patterned after one of Dylan’s songs that’s sheer filler. I wrote it as part of my obsession with Blind Willie McTell, and the song has a lot of McTell-isms in it. ‘Minstrel Boy’ has always hit me in the heart, and I love the feeling of it,” she continues of the covers the band did for the new album. “I used one of Dylan’s verses and wrote the last two myself. ‘Jocko’s Lament’ was a vehicle to let Samantha and I chase each other around, it’s fun to sing. The Townes Van Zandt song is a great vehicle for pathos and harmony, and makes the rhythm section happy too.” “We really have this shared connection over Townes Van Zandt,” interjects Parton, as Holland adds, “His songs are so poetic and beautifully crafted, and it was through Samantha that I first heard of him.”
When the time came to record the album, Holland reached out to mutual friend, songwriter, producer, and M. Ward sideman Mike Coykendall. “Jolie set us up with a great studio in Portland at Mike Coykendall’s house,” says Parton. “He’s somebody we’ve had a relationship with, someone we’ve had in common, and for a couple of decades, I’ve been a huge fan of his music and work as a producer and songwriter.” “The studio is Mike’s house,” Holland continues. “I knew his studio was going to feel really homey; I knew Sam hadn’t been in the studio for a while, and I wanted to do this in a place that was going to be really comfortable.”
“It was so low pressure, so perfect,” Parton says. “We recorded everything to tape. He set up microphones in the attic by the control room, and the band was downstairs in the living room and the kitchen. We drank a lot of tea and smoked cigarettes on the porch,” she laughs. “It was exactly the vibe I needed.”