Black discovers his country music DNA
By Charles J. Gans
NEW YORK — Jack Black may have been schooled in rock, but now he’d like to sing at the Grand Ole Opry with wife Tanya Haden’s family, who recently turned him on to bluegrass music.
The 39-year-old actor-musician energetically sings the traditional tune “Old Joe Clark” on father-in-law Charlie Haden’s Grammy-nominated CD “Rambling Boy.”
“I wasn’t sure what to expect because I haven’t recorded or really sung any old songs like that before, bluegrass style, but it came very naturally and I cranked it out in two takes,” said Black, who grew up in the Los Angeles area. “There was something in the music that I think struck a chord in my DNA. I think I’ve got some hillbilly in my roots. ... I’m already practicing my square dancing if we play the Grand Ole Opry.”
Black, who recently starred in “Tropic Thunder” and the animated “Kung Fu Panda,” had to be a bit tenacious to land a last-minute supporting role when his father-in-law brought the nearly finished mix to their home so he could hear his wife sing on her own and as part of the Haden Triplets, with sisters Rachel and Petra.
“Tanya’s very shy and doesn’t think she can sing, so I wanted Jack to hear especially how beautifully she sings ‘He’s Gone Away,’ which I really had to do some talking to get her to sing,” said Charlie Haden, the eminent modern jazz bassist who brought his current family together to perform some of the old-style country songs he once sang with his parents and siblings in the popular Haden Family band in the 1930s and ’40s.
“Old Joe Clark” was originally intended to be an instrumental, but Black felt it was “a great jam” and asked his father-in-law if there were any lyrics. Haden hastily arranged a studio session so Black could add a vocal track.
“Even though I was already married to Tanya and we had kids, when I was invited to be on the Haden family album, I finally felt like I was truly part of the family,” said Black, speaking by cell phone with his wife from their car outside a Los Angeles restaurant. “I’ve always loved Tanya’s family. The whole family has always been kind of a magical source of mystery.”
Black is a self-declared “ham” whose upcoming Judd Apatow/Harold Ramis biblical times comedy, “The Year One,” co-starring Michael Cera, is slated for summer release. His wife, a cellist and visual artist, describes herself as “more of a hermit,” and recently completed an animated short with music by her sister Petra for the Nick Jr. children’s show “Yo Gabba Gabba!”
But on the album, Tanya and her sisters — with their tightly blended harmonies on the Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl” and other songs — really stand out among a lineup that features vocal stars such as Vince Gill, Elvis Costello, Dan Tyminski, Ricky Skaggs and Rosanne Cash.
“We’ll just start singing a song and we’ll naturally fall into certain harmonies,” said Tanya Haden. “When we were little we would spend the night at our grandparents’ house on our mom’s side, which was really fun for us because we’d share a room and sing in harmony before we went to bed.”
The triplets and brother Josh — all of whom have been involved in the indie rock scene — were largely raised by their mother, Ellen Haden, a therapist, after her parents divorced. Tanya says her mother — whose parents played classical music in the Los Angeles Mandolin Orchestra — helped influence their musical bent along with her more well-known father.
Haden and Black first met at a private high school in Santa Monica, Calif., but went their separate ways. She jokes that she was “a groupie” who would show up at concerts by his comedy-rock band Tenacious D. He says he was “kind of stalking” her by turning up at Haden Triplet performances. They met up again three years ago when Tenacious D was playing at a mutual friend’s surprise birthday party and were married in March 2006.