Thirty miles north-northeast would have been a good start. The answer Dunn eventually got came from well outside Spokane -- up past Elk, Wash., out in Pend Oreille County near the Chain Lakes in a mostly deserted little turnout called Camden.
The Camdenite in question, Duane Becker, has been playing pedal steel since 1968, landing on country music's biggest stage -- the Grand Ole Opry -- more than a dozen times. At this point, he's completely unfazed by the complexities of an instrument that requires two hands and both feet, all doing completely different tasks. His is a stoicism so complete -- planted stage left, almost unmoving -- that it's easy to lose Becker amid the thwap of drums, Dunn flipping through his song book and bassist Dan Spalding thumping away. Then the pedal steel's high, mournful vibrato cuts through the air like a knife, clarifying Dunn's themes of being busted and heartbroken, conjuring images of the high plains and the South Pacific. And then you grasp what a talent Becker is. The sound he wrings from that guitar is as emotionally fraught as any music being made in Spokane. The way Becker plays off Dunn's frail twang and backup vocalist Daphne Willmschen's classic alto is gorgeous and, more important, cohesive. For the first time, Robert Dunn & amp; the North Country feels like a band. Filling out the rhythm section with drums has helped tremendously, with Brett Neste grasping intuitively the unique requirements of country music played in small rooms. "He's a godsend," says Spalding. "Where do you find a subtle drummer?"
Where past incarnations of the North Country were made up of sympathetic local musicians taking time out from their personal projects to moonlight on Dunn's vision, the five-piece on display weekly at Isabella's feels dedicated to exactly that. People are noticing. "They're really clicking right now," says guitarist Zac Fairbanks, an alumnus of the North Country "They've never sounded this good." The timing's perfect. The band has a show at the High Dive in Seattle this fall and is preparing to add a sixth member, Matt Mitchell (formerly of Free Range Robots) on piano. That'll lock down the sonic requirements for Dunn's end goal. The group will begin recording a Wilco-indebted studio album within a couple months.
Robert Dunn & amp; the North Country at Isabella's every Friday at 8 pm. Free. Call 624-0660.