ARLINGTON — If you close your eyes, you could be in Texas.
Pedal steel guitar thrumming, drums crashing and languid lyrics about horses and sagebrush running through your mind, sitting in on a Dan Canyon Band performance is about as close to an authentic cowboy experience as you’ll get within 50 miles of Seattle. It’s only the occasional soaring guitar solo that reminds you the band is firmly grounded in the modern age.
On a long Saturday afternoon, the band gathered for the first time in a while to rehearse in pedal steel guitarist Pete Frothingham’s garage. Frothingham, like the rest of his bandmates, has played in tribute bands and indie side projects for decades. Photos from long-ago shows and dusty posters announcing earlier gigs lined the walls of the space.
The band’s website recounts the tale of Dan Canyon, a legendary rancher and musician famous on the plains of Eastern Washington until mysteriously vanishing, along with his band of outlaws, into a brutal storm during the winter of 1901. Legend holds the old bard was reborn through the modern band’s frontman, who stumbled upon a saddlebag full of dusty old gramophone records in a long-abandoned cow camp cabin while on the trail.
The folk tale is pure fiction, admits founder and lead vocalist Dan Canyon. But he and his own trusty band of troubadours say they’re working to keep that same spirit alive nonetheless.
The band’s six members come from all over the area: Canyon lives in Everett, and others commuted to rehearsal in Arlington from Camano Island, Redmond and beyond. They’re a long way from the plateaus and canyons honored in their neo-traditional, rock-tinged country songs, but Canyon said that hasn’t stopped them from bringing an authentic cowboy ethos to the forests of Western Washington.
“You definitely get strange looks sometimes if you’re wearing your hat and boots out to the grocery store here,” Canyon said. “But it’s what I know. It’s how I’m most comfortable.”
Canyon — born Dennis Coile; the stage name Dan Canyon was chosen for its classic cowboy vibe — grew up on the rolling prairies of the Palouse, near Pullman. His family kept a couple of horses, and when the infinite wheat fields surrounding their home were harvested each fall, he and his cousins could ride over the stubble in one direction for hours. Sometimes they’d end up so far from home they’d simply bed down and camp under the stars for the night, living out a panorama from an old John Ford movie.
After moving to the Seattle area to be closer to family a couple of decades ago, Canyon established himself in the local music scene, playing in tribute bands and penning original songs. He recalls getting an opportunity to record his originals in a friend’s studio, and quickly realizing nothing he was singing really resonated with him.
The standard advice for aspiring writers holds that you should write what you know. Canyon thought maybe that was the way to go for songwriting, too.
“I realized that everything I was trying to say just felt pretty mediocre,” Canyon said. “I’ve never really suffered in my life and I didn’t feel I had a lot to say. And so I sat down to make a list: What do I know well enough to sing about? I wrote horses, I wrote Western movies, I wrote sagebrush and cowboy boots.”
That bolt of inspiration turned into “Purple Sage,” a rollicking tale of a mercenary lawman who “lives by the gun and dies by the sword,” traveling light through the scrublands with just his horse to depend on. Canyon described the song as evoking a classic Western in the listener’s mind, painting the sunset’s rays against canyon walls just as clearly as if you were seeing it in Technicolor.
It was another 20 years before Canyon decided to spin off his cowboy persona into a true country band, cobbling together a posse of fellow Seattle-area musicians who all harbored a little outlaw spirit. Canyon said he set out to make music that captured the kind of honest-to-goodness cowboys he’d known growing up, none of “that pickup truck stuff” that pervades modern Top 40 country.
The Dan Canyon Band came together in 2018, and its debut album “Canyon Songs” was released independently in early 2020. Things were going strong, with a few gigs booked at rodeos and fairs around the region, until the pandemic brought the country scene to a screeching halt.
But the cowboy spirit persisted among members of the online community who’d supported the band from the start, Canyon said. The album got airplay on internet and broadcast radio stations, first among friends of the band around the West, then eventually as far as Ireland and Italy.
“You would be surprised how big cowboy Western (music) is over there,” Canyon said. “Just goes to show you don’t even have to own a pair of spurs to get into the groove.”
“Canyon Songs” was nominated for several awards, including Best Album, by the Academy of Western Artists in 2020 and 2021. Live music was still slowly reawakening from its pandemic-induced slumber as the band began work on its second album, “Purple Sage,” released last month.
The band’s sound is colored as much by the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival as it is Waylon Jennings or early George Strait, Canyon said. They’re all “children of the ’70s,” he said and the freewheeling solos from guitarist Lonnie Mueller and Pete Buchiginani’s rapidfire drum beats showcase the band’s decades of combined experience as professional rockers.
The band recently booked its first live show of 2023, at the Skagit County Fair in August, said road manager Greg Martin, and they hope to announce more dates around the region in the coming months.
Getting crowds excited about an old-style cowboy country band is an uphill battle in this neck of the woods where few folks wear boots caked with dirt and cow manure, even in the best of times, Canyon admits. But the Dan Canyon Band’s name has spread far and wide among those who, like Canyon and his bandmates, long for the dusty plateaus and windswept sagebrush of a distant place and time.
“Wherever we can play somewhere there’s a rodeo involved, we can find the kind of people who appreciate what we’re doing,” Canyon said.