Dan Tyack appears with the Heathens 9:30 p.m. Thursday at the Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle ($5, 206-789-3599)
Twenty minutes past Auburn's SuperMall, the Wagon Wheel tavern in South Prairie seems just the place for a pedal-steel guitar jamboree. It's packed with folks in Western duds. The ceiling is low, the smoke thick, the decor an empty birdcage and a so-so painting of Mount Rainier.
The pick-up band, replete with three pedal-steel guitarists, plays some George Jones covers and a scorching version of the Western swing classic "Steel Guitar Rag," featuring the fleet-fingered Speedy Price of Fife. The warm, swooping sound of the pedal steel totally envelops the room. Then folks lay out a Sunday potluck supper of tortilla pie, fried chicken and more.
Bellevue resident Dan Tyack says he's been in more than a few places just like the Wagon Wheel, over a career that has taken him from Nashville, L.A. and Northwest honky-tonks to management jobs at Microsoft and Amazon.com. A reinvigorated pedal-steel guitar expert, Tyack is stretching the boundaries of the instrument past the usual confines of country and Western swing. And as Tyack is hitting his stride with his "Blackened Toast" CD and a stream of other projects, a select few compatriots across the U.S. and in England are also taking pedal steel into unexpected realms, from trip-hop and techno to African-American Pentecostal "praise" music.
Tyack's got company in Puget Sound, too, where the beyond-country steel scene includes the jazz-influenced Stephen Bishop of Lake Forest Park, and Ballard's Hal Merrill.
Tyack, who plays with Danny Barnes and the Heathens next Thursday at the Tractor Tavern, is a twinkly, blue-eyed father of two. Before a recent gig with Rod Cook and Toast at Cafe Pinceau in Edmonds, he talked to a visitor and set up his odd contraption.
Four skinny metal legs support a rectangular bed with 20 strings (some have just 12). Plugged into an amplifier, it looks like a small electric keyboard from a short distance. Notes are plucked with one or more picks and fretted with a metal slide, producing the characteristic gliding, swooping sound. Foot and knee pedals can alter picked notes, somewhat like a guitar whammy bar.
First used in the early '50s on country star Webb Pierce's hit, "Slowly," the pedal steel is a different, more complex beast than the older steel guitar, and the smaller lap steel guitar, popularized in Hawaiian music of the early 20th century.
This evening, the audience is treated to funky blues, roots rock, reggae and jazzy jamming, with Tyack's pedal steel up front. In his talented hands, it evokes the fluid phrasing of a be-bop horn player, then a swarm of angry hornets. Or a rocking, bluesy guitarist with a melodic sense honed studying jazz theory.
This is the life Tyack has pursued since college in the '70s. A freshman at University of California, Berkeley, "I still was practicing six hours a day. My priorities were clear. It was 1975, and I dropped out and went on the road with a group called California Cowboys and Company. We toured Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, had these neat outfits, the whole deal. We'd hunker down for two-week gigs in places like Pendleton or Richland. The days were wide open, so I just kept practicing."
Before long, Nashville's siren sounded. He quickly found steady work backing country stars. Tyack played in one local dive where, after Jim Beam and Jack Daniels did their work on patrons, the band played blues, usually a strict Nashville no-no. There was plenty of solo space for the pedal steel. It was a turning point, Tyack says, as he realized the instrument could take a more prominent role, wailing with authority like a blues guitar, for instance, instead of just supplying background fills. He built his chops further working with the venerable Western swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Vince Gill, Lacy J. Dalton, and others.
Though doing well, Tyack wanted to expand his career options. Always technically inclined, he returned to Berkeley and earned a computer-science degree. He came to Seattle in 1989 and landed at Microsoft, where he managed server software projects and the Encarta World Atlas team. Gradually, Tyack began playing again, one of more than a few Microsoft employees involved in the performing arts. There were lucrative sessions for Muzak, plus work with singer Laura Love, folk artists Stella, Toast, and Tyack's Toast offshoot, Blackened Toast. Tyack also recorded with local world-music innovators the Guarneri Underground. Tyack moved to Amazon.com to head Web site production for the music store, but recently left to pursue music full time once more. He's playing gigs, organizing special projects in Nashville, and is in talks with a label about distribution of his self-produced "Blackened Toast" CD.
"Before, I was so busy playing clubs, studio gigs and recording commercials, I didn't even have an opportunity to write or compose or work on complex music that's not instantly commercially viable," Tyack said. "Now, my focus is to play music that I really love. A lot of times, if you do that, you ultimately have more recognition and success than if you say, `I'm gonna start a group and go make a lot of money.' "