Cow Country Crooner
American Cowboy Magazine March/ April 2002
Article by Jesse Mullins, Jr.
Wylie Gustafson, of Wylie and the Wild West, is one who knows of what he sings. He had just returned from the Sundance Festival, where he’d seen himself up there on the screen in the final cut of a new independent film called The Slaughter Rule, and Wylie Gustafson was talking about wanting to do more in films. It’s not as if he doesn’t have enough to do already. As the leader of an ever-more-popular Western band, Wylie and the Wild West Show, the singer/songwriter is kept to a dogtrot doing live shows and making records, while keeping his hand in the ranch business back home. There are horses to train, and he keeps a handful of buffalo, mainly for training his cutting horses. (The quick and nimble bison present a desirably tough challenge.) When he’s not playing dates with his band, he’s doing solo shows.
So the film work was hard to wedge in, but fun nonetheless. “Its about six-man football,” Gustafson says, explaining the title by the fact that in six-man, a game gets “called’ if one team gets 45 points ahead (essentially, a “slaughter’) of the other team. “It was beautiful- shot in Montana-and we had three songs in it. I made an appearance and got to speak a line.”
Reared on a Montana cattle ranch, Gustafson has more than just a passing acquaintance with the state, and with the lifestyle that is the message behind his music. “My family has a cattle ranch on the Two Medicine River, and I try to get back there once or twice a year to help my brother ship or round up cattle,” says the singer. “I feel lucky and blessed to have been raised on a cattle ranch. Those experiences are something I still draw from. They still come out in my music.”
Cowboy poet Baxter Black could see fairly quickly, when he met Gustafson at a celebrity roping event a few years ago, that the young performer was at home atop a horse.
“Wylie had just shown up there [it was Gustafson’s first time at the Ben Johnson Celebrity Rodeo] and I saw just enough to know that he sat a horse good, and could swing a rope. They had a calcutta at those events, where you could ‘buy’ [wager on] each team, and I’d always bought myself, or if not myself a ‘long shot,’ and that year I bought him.”
It was no dice that year, but for three straight years Black put his money on Gustafson. Then on the fourth year Black wasn’t able to participate, and Wylie and his partner won it all that time. When the two run into each other on the road, that’s the topic of conversation- or of cajoling, anyway. “But I’m as proud of his buckle as he is,” Black says. “And yes, the boy can rope.”
Meanwhile, the music’s been a winner, too. The band’s new album, Paradise (Rounder Records) is “selling twice [as well as] any other album of ours,” Gustafson says. “A lot of it has to do with whether or not the album is getting into the record stores. We’re never going to be Garth Brooks, but our goal is to preserve Western music and make Western music that speaks to a contemporary audience. We don’t want to be just a ‘retro’ band that does Sons of the Pioneers songs. There is a place for that, and I respect those bands that do that, but we’re trying to write our material and do something new with it.”
Their mentors and influences, Gustafson says, are people they have respected and tried to mold themselves after. “Bands like Riders in the Sky and Asleep at the Wheel -both have been around about 25 years and created their own audiences.”
Ranger Doug Greene of Rider’s in the Sky says that Gustafson is enormously talented. “And he’s managed to do a couple of very difficult things,” Greene adds. “He managed to achieve a retro took and sound while appealing to a thoroughly contemporary audience, and he also managed to stand out with his own unique sound and vision in the field of Western music, which is crowded with singers and bands who have talent but not individuality. Wylie has talent and individuality, and he is one of the most refreshing guys in the business. Ror that reason, I’m a fan.”
Dusty, Wash., the singer’s home, is as remote as it sounds, by the way. His ranch is two miles from town, which in turn is 40 miles from the next town of any significantly larger size, that being Dayton.
“We’re really out in the middle of nowhere, but that’s why I like it out here,” Gustafson says. “There are not too many distractions. We’re not in the cattle business to make a profit or make a living. We’re in it to provide training for our cowhorses and just because its our chosen lifestyle. I still have to get up every morning and feed them in the winter. That’s why I have a great wife who will pick up the slack when I’m out playing.
Out there, out in the New Yorks and Seattles and Elkos, the music remains for him the main creative outlet, and the driving force in his working life. He’s a trendsetter, a yodeler par excellence (that’s him doing the “Yahoo-o-o-o! ” at the end of those commercials for the Yahoo! Search Engine), and one of the leading innovators in the Western field. “There’s something about Western music that I can’t put a finger on,” Gustafson says, “but that something is what draws people to Western music, and there’s something that is real about it or speaks to them like no other music speaks to them.”