Oct 9, 2013
By M.P. Regan
Wylie Gustafson earned his mastery of cowboy music and its core subject matters the hardest way’ and almost certainly the best way-by playing thousands of shows and working his family’s fourth generation Montana ranch in Conrad for decades as he experienced first-hand the life and music of a cowboy.
From that base, Gustafson launched and continues to work his unlikely yet successful dual career as a rancher and leader of Wylie and the Wild West, a band that’s recorded 20 albums that have sold close to a million copies and performed thousands of gigs that include appearances on national TV and in some of the most ,hallowed music halls in America.
Wylie and the Wild West’s next gig will be tonight in Dillon at 7 o’clock in the Keltz Arena on the University of Montana Western campus in a concert that kicks off the Southwest Montana Arts Council’s 2013-14 Showcase Series.
“I guess I picked the toughest two ways to make a living- raising horses and yodeling,” said Gustafson, who works his family’s quarter horse ranch in Conrad when he’s not touring with his band.
“But they are two things that I love to do and cherish dearly,” said Gustafson, who had his appendix taken out a week ago and still got up at 4 a.m. yesterday to help his brother ship 400 pairs of cattle before driving down to Dillon to play tonight’s concert.
“Neither pays real well, so the benefits don’t show up in my 1099 at the end of the year, but in my smile every day.”
Gustafson said he picked up much of what he knows about cowboy life and music from his father, Rib Gustafson, an inductee this year into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame.
“I was the youngest of five kids, so I think I took up music at first in part because I was starved for attention,” laughed Gustafson, who has won regional and national titles within the National Cutting Horse Association and appeared on the cover of Western Horseman magazine.
“I had no, idea where the music would go. All I knew was I loved it-loved performing it, loved playing it for audiences and connecting to people through it,” revealed Gustafson, who formed Wylie and the Wild West 25 years ago.
“I had no idea yodeling would go on to make such a big difference in my life,” added Gustafson, who has published a book on yodeling and taught Conan O’Brien to yodel in front of millions of viewers in 2008 when-he appeared as a guest on the network TV talk show Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
“There was never a huge event or big green light that was the catalyst for my career in music. It was just all persistence and baby steps. I guess my first appearance at The Grand Ole Opry in 1993 was a moment I stopped and cherished and realized I’d far exceeded my expectations,” said Gustafson, whose yodeling harkens back to Jimmie Rodgers, who helped launch country music into national prominence in the 1920s.
In the two decades since his Grand Ole Opry appearance, Wylie has also performed at The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, The National Folk Festival, The Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center, and on National Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion and on the “God made a farmer” TV commercial during halftime of the’ 2013 Super Bowl.
“I’m a yodeling cowboy in 21st century,” humbly offered Gustafson, who played shows in China and Mongolia earlier this year; !’We take it where we can get it.”
Gustafson said he’s used the same open-minded and open- armed approach to gathering influences to develop his unique, updated take on American music, blending styles from cowboy to blues to polka to rock ‘n’ roll and distilling it all through the sensibilities of a native Montanan. “I’m just a folk singer who’s been influenced by many different styles of music growing up,” commented Gustafson, who said his two musical heroes as a child were Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Myron Floren-the longtime accordion player on The Lawrence Welk Show.
“It’s hard to pigeonhole us- we use cowboy music and folk and country and have got this yodeling thing going on, plus a dance element,” said Wylie, who at 52 still performs the Chuck Berry duck walk during concerts and is urging people to bring their dancing boots to tonight’s show in Dillon.
“I’m okay with that schizo description. It’s what we are and who we are American music is a hybrid of what came before it. Maybe there’s no such thing as a pure form of it-it’s changing all the time. What makes it special is that it’s a blend of so many different styles,” added Gustafson, who said his roots in Montana helped him resist the pressures of reducing all those musical elements to the more homogenized and commercially successful country music style favored in Nashville and Los Angeles.
“That’s one of things about being a Montanan-rugged individualism comes out in a lot of its artists. We are a different breed.”