Wylie Gustafson: the Montana yodeler
Posted on 09 May 2004
Wylie and the Wild West
By Scott Prinzing, for Montana Living
Although making a living as a cowboy isn't a requirement for making music about the cowboy lifestyle, it sure comes in handy for Wylie Gustafson.
Especially when he's writing a song like "Leather Lover," from Wylie and the Wild West's latest release, "Hooves of the Horses." "That song is chock full of lingo that will only be known to the working cowboy," says Gustafson, a native of Montana. "You won't find most of these definitions in the dictionary." Gustafson grew up around horses in Conrad, Montana, as the son of a veterinarian.
Wylie and the Wild West, right, with cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski
Often babysat by a Quarter horse called "Becky," it is no wonder that he has continued to build his life around horses. "My favorite pastime was to hop on Becky's back for off-roading adventures around our rural home," he said. Gustafson now lives with his wife, Kimberly, on her family's homestead in the rolling hills of eastern Washington where they raise and train horses. His other passion is western singing and yodeling. Known to many as the audio logo of Yahoo!, Gustafson knows he has a gift for yodeling, but knows that some things are better in small doses. Hooves of the Horses, like most of his albums, includes a yodel here and there, but for the diehard fans, he made the yodel-ful Total Yodel! released in 1998. In addition to doctoring horses, his father, Rib Gustafson, yodeled to them.
Wylie was the only one of the five siblings to take to the unique singing style naturally. But it wasn't until he was older and had returned to singing country music after a stint at rock and roll that he found that yodeling set him apart from other singers. In the 1980s, Gustafson and his brother, Erik (now a single-man act who performs under the name Erik Ray) could be found rocking out in Missoula at college hangouts. While Erik stayed with blues and rock, Wylie went to Nashville. Wylie found yodeling and country music was surprisingly "cool."
Making yodeling cool
Cool enough to land him gigs yodeling on commercials for Miller Lite, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Taco Bell, and Yahoo! Those spots might help pay the bills, but if he was only a novelty act, it's unlikely he would have been invited to over 40 performances at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Wylie's band, "Wylie and the Wild West," now play throughout the country, at gigs where people want a unique western band.
They try to make it out to Nashville once or twice a year - after all, it is the Mecca of country and western music - but the drive to succeed in the business has never been enough of a draw to relocate there. "I got into music for the love of performing and for the freedom to express myself artistically," Gustafson says. "I love the western lifestyle and living where I can get away from the music business back on the ranch." That ranch is in the tiny community of Dusty, Wash., population 12 (including dogs).
That's a far cry from the half a million or more folks in Nashville. But he does return to Nashville to record. His first few albums were recorded in southern California, one in Austin, Texas, but the rest were recorded in Nashville. The band currently includes two musicians who live in Spokane, and two in northern California. They perform somewhere around the country pretty much every weekend each summer, every other weekend during the rest of the year. About once a year they do an overseas tour that has taken them to places as far from Dusty as Australia, France and Japan. "There are a surprising number of country western and American music fans in the other countries we've performed," Gustafson says, "but the most enthusiastic fans are the American roots music fans."
At performances in Japan, we have fans showing up dressed in western gear for the occasion." One of the things making it possible for Wylie and the Wild West to travel the 40 weekends a year is the loyalty of their fans. "We usually have 200 to 300 folks turn out at every show," he says. They also have eight CDs and cassettes for sale that help make it all possible. There are song samples available for every song from his seven most recent albums on the website www.wylieww.com. Those who want to hear his duet with Merle Haggard on "Ugly Girl Blues," will want to be sure to check out that clip from his critically acclaimed second release, Get Wild.
The website's links page is a virtual beginner's guide to western music and the cowboy lifestyle. One important link is for the Academy of Western Artists, who awarded Wylie the Will Rogers Award for "Yodeler of the Year" this July in Fort Worth, Texas. "Hooves of the Horses" provides a good blend of old cowboy songs, country classics and cowboy poetry.
The title track is one of three poems he has written music for. "Saddle Broncs and Sagebrush" is a poem by celebrated Montana cowboy poet, Paul Zarzyski. The two non-standard covers are Johnny Cash's "Luther Played the Boogie" and Buddy Holly's "Everyday." There are two songs by "Sons of the Pioneers" founding member Bob Nolan and the haunting song by folk artist Thomas G. Russell, "The Sky Above, the Mud Below." Gustafson says of Russell's work, "I feel comfortable about stacking his CDs on the top shelf next to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie."
Gustafson's original songs fit comfortably alongside the classics in much the same way. In fact, Wylie and the Wild West is making authentic, western music that one day may be considered standard cowboy singer fare for generations to come. On the Net: www.wylieww.com. Scott Prinzing is a freelance writer based in Billings who specializes in writing about Montana music.
For information about Wylie and the Wild West and his "Montana Muse" radio show on Yellowstone Public Radio, visit www.yellowstonepublicradio.org.