Celebrating Independence with… Canyon Records

In honor of Independence Day, KEXP is saluting some of our favorite indie record labels whose DIY-spirit helped revolutionize the music industry. As an independent radio station ourselves, KEXP is thrilled to give a 13-gun salute to these pioneers with a series of label spotlights through the Fourth of July.

Canyon Records is one of the oldest independent record labels in the United States, founded in 1951, and they focus exclusively on Native American music, marketing a wide array of traditions to Native communities and music lovers throughout North America. Native American music has rarely enjoyed much success in mainstream American music, and it was a long, hard haul for label founders Ray and Mary Boley to convince record stores to stock Native music. Fighting prejudice and blind ignorance that kept storeowners from realizing that there was a ready market among regional Native communities, the Boleys turned Canyon into a viable label that today has cornered the market on Native music. From live powwow recordings (one from University of Washington!), to releases of traditional singers first recorded on 78s, to active fusions of Native tradition with global music genres, Canyon keeps up an output greater than most independent record labels. From the start, the Boleys developed the label to cater to Native Americans first and foremost, breaking with the philosophy of other Native music recordings that were intended mainly for Western academics. After 30 years, the Boleys were about to give up when they met Navajo flute player R. Carlos Nakai. Having been turned down by other record labels, Nakai was looking for a home for his music and Canyon was happy to distribute his first album, Changes. Nakai, whose music blended old traditions and new sounds and was eminently marketable to non-Native audiences, went on to become the only Native artist to record two gold-selling albums, both with Canyon records, and helped define the new sound of Native music in the 80s and 90s. Both Ray and Mary Boley have passed on now, but Canyon’s still going strong, releasing albums at a steady pace and enjoying the patronage of both Native and non-Native music aficionados.

Key Releases:

  • 1952. Ed Lee Natay – Natay, Navajo Singer (first release, still in print)
  • 1967. Various Artists – Hopi Butterfly
  • 1971. William Horncloud – Traditional Lakota Songs
  • 1977. Young Grey Horse Society – Songs of the Blackfeet
  • 1983. R. Carlos Nakai – Changes
  • 1998. Various Artists – Peyote Ceremonial Songs (vintage recordings)
  • 1998. R. Carlos Nakai – Canyon Trilogy (first Native American Gold recording)
  • 1999. Southern Scratch – Em-ew:hejed (For All of You)
  • 2002. Verdell Primeaux & Johnny Mike – Bless the People (Grammy winner)
  • 2002. Randy Wood – Round Dance the Night Away
  • 2009. Cheevers Toppah, Alex E. Smith, Nitanis ‘Kit’ Landry – Rain in July: Native American Vocal Harmony
  • 2010. Northern Cree – Round Dance Songs
  • 2012. Tony Duncan – Earth Warrior



Waila (chicken scratch) music from the Tohono O’odham tribe of Southern Arizona:

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