If street-wise Texan legend Willie Nelson thought Nashville was the roughest, then spare a thought for a pair of unknown young musicians from the other end of the world who headed to the country capital hoping to hit the big-time.
Singer-songwriter and guitarist Cy Winstanley and bassist and singer Vanessa McGowan headed to Nashville from far-off New Zealand in 2014 with great expectations but no illusions about the obstacles ahead of them in music row.
Now, almost a decade later, the days of working room service or behind a gift-shop counter are over. They have returned to their homeland as the much-admired duo Tattletale Saints to promote their latest album, having amassed an impressive music resume of four albums and session work with some of the big names in Nashville like Brandy Clark and Sugarland.
The second stop on their New Zealand tour was in their hometown of Auckland at the popular Americana venue The Tuning Fork, where the likes of Steve Earle, Son Volt and Jimmie Dale Gilmore have performed over the years.
As expected, the new album In the Summertime has pride of place on the set list. The album was released on March 3, the day before the tour commenced, and is an eclectic, polished collection of covers – ranging from country to reggae, and, somewhere in between, gospel and even 60’s pop.
But the New Zealand tour - with a hectic schedule of 18 gigs in 21 days – sees these covers stripped of drums, fiddle, mandolin et al. All that remains are Cy’s acoustic guitar, Vanessa’s upright bass and a harmonica. Oh, add to that a sock. A sock? At The Tuning Fork gig, Cy amused fans by using a favourite sock as a capo!
Tattletale Saints opened, as does their album, with Warren Zevon’s much-covered “Carmelita.” But unlike most of the big-name covers, including Linda Ronstadt’s, the pair pleased purists by sticking with the original line I pawned my Smith Corona (typewriter) instead of I pawned my Smith and Wesson (gun).
“I’m a big Warren Zevon fan,” quipped Winstanley whose silky, velvet vocals – his singing style is often compared to Paul Simon – helped give the song a folksy flavour, aided somewhat by McGowan’s understated and soothing chorus harmonies.
In the pair’s first three albums, McGowan rarely took lead vocals, but that all changed on In the Summertime where she takes the lead on four of the 10 tracks. She performed three of these in Auckland. First up was the Patsy Montana bluegrass hit “Big Moon” before delivering an almost reverential version of gospel favourite “Wayfaring Stranger,” which she nicely dedicated to the great Emmylou Harris.
But the star-turn, not only of McGowan’s singing but of the night, was her delightful lead on “Bartender’s Blues,” one of the few country songs written by James Taylor – it would be a big hit for George Jones. George would have been proud of this version, given the Tattletale Saints’ beautiful harmonies – a la George and Tammy.
Winstanley dubbed it their “tears in my beer” song, while McGowan wisely added that the song helped pay homage to all those in the service and entertainment industry, including musicians, who had been financially impacted by the global pandemic,
The pair’s creative live interpretation of these covers – helped by some simply sublime big-bass solos by McGowan – has to be seen to be truly appreciation. But at times they appeared somewhat apologetic for favouring the renditions over their original material. “Doing a lot of covers is not a cop out,” noted McGowan. “We have spent the last 15 years playing other people’s songs. It’s just part of being a working musician.”
Their covers catalogue almost defines Americana music by stitching together the various strands from many musical genres. One minute they are bouncing about doing the Hank Williams hit “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” the next minute they are interpreting reggae - sharing vocals on Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” with Winstanley again delighting fans through his distinctive guitar riffs.
But the set was not all stylish covers. There was time to delve into Winstanley's impressive, and sometimes quirky, song-writing catalogue, both old and new.
First up was the appealing “Sonoma County Wine” off the 2016 Tattletale Saints album. Winstanley says it is based on a true story of falling in love with someone behind a hotel front desk. The pair share the first-person-gender narratives:
So I called up the front desk, asked her how she was doing
Said are you getting off soon, do you want to come out tonight?
She was a little hesitative, but I could tell she was thinking
So I said I’ve got a bag of weed, a fifth of whiskey
And a bottle of Sonoma County wine
Winstanley’s song-writing influences truly interpret life as it confronts him. And they are, indeed, quite diverse. “Bobby Where Did You Learn to Dance” was written after seeing a blind man dance in an East Texas honky tonk, while “Little Richard is Alive and Well in Nashville” is a tongue-in-cheek take on the Rock ‘n Roll showman’s life in Tennessee.
And his writing, like much of Americana music, simply reflects modern life and societal pressures. “D.I.N.K” (Double Income No Kiddies) is, says Winstanley, dedicated to Vanessa and her boyfriend Jake - a happy couple with a cat. It is a delightful foot-tapping romp.
Double income no kiddies
Living downtown close to the city
Doing what they want happy as a clam
Money in their pockets time on their hands
“D.I.N.K” is off the 2020 release Dancing Under the Dogwoods, described by one critic as “a beautifully crafted and well-polished album.” The title track has become the signature song for Tattletale Saints. It is a foot-stomping blend of Cajun and Gaelic music and was the show closer – once Winstanley remembered the appealing opening harmonic riff.
It sure got the hand-clapping audience wanting more and they got it with – you guessed it – another cover. But this was not from In the Summertime, but rather the Abba gem “Dancing Queen” off the 2020 album. Once again, Tattletale Saints make it their very own, with a slow, soft acoustic interpretation.
McGowan said it best. “Bill Monroe once said you couldn’t tell if a band was any good unless you hear them play something you already knew.”
You would think that if old Bill had been at the Tuning Fork he would have thought this band was good. In fact, it is fair to say, he would have loved every minute.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation