Music News

Back Country

Spend one of your Sunday nights, as I did recently, at the Yucca Tap Room in Tempe, and you're likely to see what will at first seem like an anomaly — a pretty, diminutive, 30-year-old woman named Dana Armstrong sitting behind two turntables playing classic country songs from the '60s and '70s. No scratching, no beat juggling: This isn't turntable trickery, just cleverly arranged playlists (conceived on the fly) that conjure up juke joints you're more likely to find in a town like Sonoita in southern Arizona.

There's no mistaking this for a traditional country-and-western bar night, though — although I'm tattooed, wearing a metal-studded belt and sporting a nearly shaved head, I'm not out of place. Actually, I see more than a few of my friends here — skateboarders in their mid-to-late twenties, musicians from bands like the Bindlestiffs, and a couple people I know from my neighborhood (which isn't that close to the Yucca).

DJ Dana, as she's known, has been shattering expectations behind turntables for nearly a decade now — not always playing sheer country, but always dodging any sort of tracks that you'd expect to hear from a young musical auteur. I can't count the number of people I know, friends or otherwise, that have claimed the job description of "DJ," but none are doing anything as unique and out of the mainstream as what DJ Dana does.

Shy and self-deprecating, Dana explains to me her record-spinning roots while she sips on Michelob Ultras. She started collecting records around 1989, by punk mainstays like JFA, Fugazi, and the Descendents. Certainly nothing odd about that, but soon she developed a fixation with thrift stores, and her aesthetic changed.

"I got really obsessed with thrift stores — clothes, records, anything," she tells me. "By buying those cheap records, I could buy anything I wanted to, anything that looked interesting. My brother listened to just rap — Too Short and EPMD and that stuff — and I could impress him by finding where the samples from that stuff came from — Gap Band and stuff like that."

While she was accumulating her record collection, she was still going to punk rock shows at venues like the Silver Dollar and the Sun Club every weekend. But she eventually had her own personal backlash against that sound. "All the punk rock stuff, once all of those type of bands start becoming popular, you lose interest in them," she says. "It's really kind of disappointing. To avoid that whole situation, I got into older music, music I knew couldn't get exploited again, that had already gone through that."

So she took her record collection of '70s rock and '80s oddities, and, with a couple of friends, started DJing at Cannery Row in Tempe around 1997. "In the beginning, I played just classic rock and '80s stuff, no country, really. Every once in a while [I'd play] Waylon or Willie or something, but mostly '70s rock, like Fleetwood Mac, Nazareth, Steely Dan, Bob Seger."

It was a tough sell at first for Cannery Row's decidedly downscale crowd. "I had to force it down their throats, I think," she tells me. "They liked some of it. I don't think they were excited about Nazareth. I think they liked '80s stuff like Journey more. Everybody liked all different things, so I just played whatever I wanted to play. Nobody wanted me to play Stevie Nicks, but I did. People wanted to hear more '60s stuff, or '80s, but I liked the '70s stuff."

The Wednesday night caught on nonetheless, but Dana took a couple years' sabbatical in New York. When she returned, she jumped back into the DJ scene, playing everything from 60th-birthday celebrations to weddings and Memorial Day parties. "It's a good audience for me, people in their sixties. I have the same musical taste they do, for some reason."

She got a gig playing at Mickey's Hangover in Scottsdale, and then had a short run at Ziggy's in Tempe. That's when country music became her primary muse. "My dad listened to [country] when I was growing up. To me, it's a whole reaction to Arizona and how much it's changed," she says. "I'm resisting the growth that's happening here so much that I almost think it's an unconscious reaction to it, trying to get it back to how it used to be. I think what people listen to when they're growing up . . . there's some type of connection, those are your happiest years. It reminds me of these good memories."

As a fourth-generation Arizonan, Dana is more sensitive than most about the development and gentrification that Phoenix has undergone, and outside of her musical hobby, she quietly and subtly lobbies against the exploitation of the Western civilization she calls home. While we're talking and drinking, she presents a friend of mine with a tee shirt that says "Arizona — No Vacancy."

She's quick to assure me that it's not an immigration-related sentiment expressed on the shirt. When she asks me who I thought it was referring to, I immediately told her, "Californians."

"Good," she says, with relief.

Honestly, though, I believe that her efforts behind the turntables, armed with her formidable collection of the sort of country music that used to blare from honky-tonks and juke joints across our Southwestern former frontier, are doing more to keep Arizona's roots and history alive than the tee shirts that she prints up. DJ Dana is both a country music historian and an Arizonan/Western activist, and if you show up to hear her throw down her slabs of vinyl, you'll become a believer like I did.

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Brendan Joel Kelley