It's a rainy night in the burgeoning Ballard neighborhood, but the dark, musty Tractor Tavern is hopping. The opening act, rising singer-songwriter Edie Carey, finishes her set to a chorus of applause from 100 or so standing fans. Moments later, the headliner, Seattle singer-songwriter Holly Figueroa, takes the stage and the crowd goes nuts.
The artist takes the mic and announces that the Tractor is one of her favorite hometown haunts. Owner Dan Cowan peeks out from behind the bar and smiles.
"I love that artists love playing here," Cowan says between drags of a cigarette. "I love that this is a place they want to come."
Indeed, acts that can easily fill larger venues for single shows opt instead for extended-night runs at the casual, intimate Tractor. Folk legend Emmylou Harris popped by to perform a couple of years ago. Improvisational guitarist Bill Frisell played two nights last February. Most recently, alt-country heroes Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter played a handful of sold-out shows to an uproarious crowd.
And fans are coming in droves, driving from West Seattle, White Center, even Olympia to see a show. With this constant influx of locals into Ballard, the once-sleepy fishing hamlet is suddenly Seattle's hottest scene. New stores have sprung up along the main drag of Market Street, and the Hi-Life, a stylish restaurant in the renovated Ballard firehouse, recently opened.
"Just about everything he does has a positive impact on our community," says Beth Williamson Miller, executive director of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce. "Dan was the first to bring nightlife to Ballard, and today, when you mention the Tractor, people know it's here."
An alternative to the alternative
When the Tractor first opened, around 1993, Ballard was "uncharted territory," Cowan says―the perfect opportunity to try something totally new. He says the neighborhood was where 30-something Capitol Hill hipsters were settling down, and he eventually decided to start a music club that appealed to them. Figuring these fans liked less gritty music, Cowan began booking some of the same country and folk bands he had known for years. And ticket sales skyrocketed.
He named the spot after an oil painting of a red tractor and redoubled his efforts to expand the area's musical horizons by bringing in rockabilly, jazz, ska, blues, and zydeco. As grunge music became more prevalent around Seattle, Cowan tried to transform the Tractor into a "place for music fans who didn't have a place," a venue that actually avoided grunge for the sake of something different.
"We wanted to be the alternative to the alternative," Cowan explains. "Since virtually nobody else was doing it, we carved a niche for ourselves pretty quickly."
As singer Jesse Sykes puts it, "[Cowan] is the heart and soul of the Tractor. He had a vision for something different, and he has stuck with it."
Nowadays, the club is booked five to seven nights a week and is bringing in about $1 million a year from ticket and bar sales. As if that weren't enough, Cowan has other projects up his sleeve. He occasionally books artists to perform at the nearby Sunset Tavern, of which he owns a small portion. He's also been involved in renovating the bar at Hattie's Hat, a circa-1920 tavern that he co-owns with Kyla Fairchild, one of the publishers of the alternative-music magazine No Depression. The no-nonsense Fairchild, a staunch opponent of gentrification, expresses relief that as Ballard has gotten more chic, it hasn't lost the working-class ethos that made it what it is.
"Ballard was and still is a working-class place―a place where blue-collar people would relax in town after work," says Fairchild. "Now, with places like the Tractor and Hattie's, people who work in other neighborhoods are coming here too."
Cowan's favorite bands
Nobody in Seattle knows local bands better than Dan Cowan. Here are his current top five favorite Seattle bands.
Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter. "Country gothic that reflects the American spirit like a work of art."
Tim Seely. "Incorporates orchestral samples for a totally unique sound."
Pistol Star. "Folk and funk for a twist you can't help but groove to."
Radio Nationals. "Classic twang with a bit of gritty rock. A great time."
The Tallboys. "Classic string music for old-time bluegrass enthusiasts."
INFO: Tractor Tavern ($5-$25 for most shows; 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W.; www.tractortavern.com or 206/789-3599) is open five to seven nights a week. Tickets are available through www.ticketweb.com as well as on-site 12-4 Mon-Fri and before each performance.