Yodeling cutter, or cutting yodeler.

Wylie Gustafson

by Michael Price
An ability to yodel is hardly a precondition of skilled cutting, but Wylie Gustafson has made his name synonymous with both disciplines. Some songwriting smart-aleck once professed that the art of yodeling was born of some cowboy’s rough landing in the saddle.

But Gustafson, an accomplished cutter who also delivers progressive, edgy Western music, makes his yodels appear as natural as breathing. Suffused with the gentlemanly old-school style that one associates with such 20th-century artists as Roy Rogers and Elton Britt, Gustafson’s act is at once provocative and crowd-pleasing.

The 16th album from his ensemble, Wylie & the Wild West, is as new as the new decade―Raven on the Wind, it’s called, and it more than lives up to an appraisal from a celebrated cowboy poet and columnist: Gustafson and his troupe, as Baxter Black puts it, have “changed the water level in the cowboy entertainment aquarium.” And now that the level has been raised, turbulence is a foregone conclusion.
Raven on the Wind is the direct sequel to a similarly rambunctious album called Hang-n-Rattle! The new effort serves at once to uproot the weather beaten old fences of traditional cowboy music, and to build them up in sturdier form.

 

Much as Bob Wills once gerrymandered the boundaries of country music by incorporating jazz (in the 1930s) and rhythm-and-blues (during the 1960s) into his Texas Playboys’ songbook, Gustafson recalls nothing so much as a born-to-the-saddle rock ’n’ roller. Hence the inclusion of such seemingly disparate items as a frontier polka and a Rolling Stones song on the new album.

Of course, Gustafson has exhibited a maverick streak all along in his parallel equine and music-making careers. The Montana-based rancher who has championed “barefoot cutting”―what rule says that horses must wear iron on their hooves at all times?―reconciles ideally with the entertainer who maintains that the music of the frontier must be as unpredictable as the weather and the wildlife.

“When I write songs,” as Gustafson tells it, “I really try to strike the balance between good old tradition and the West’s innate trait of forging ahead into new territory.” Mission accomplished, with such tunes as “Punchy,” a bracing portrait of a ’puncher who is “half-horse, half-cow, half-Superman”; the haunting “Wild Mustang” (“You can try to run me off of my range / Can’t touch me, baby / I’m a wild mustang…”); and the provocative and challenging “Circle,” with its nagging injunction to break one’s familiar patterns: “Don’t dwell where you’ve been before / And you’ll find who you are … The same old song that you keep singing / Is soulless in every note…”

Though renowned for his yodeling―from campfire balladry to the sonic trademark of Yahoo-dot-com―Gustafson has subdued that talent with Raven on the Wind, the better to seek some new directions of his own. He nonetheless displays his higher singing voice on “Hi–Line Polka,” and all the better for that.

“My favorite Western songwriters, book writers, and artists have always uncovered the West’s true identity by throwing off the superficial, expected layers and digging deep into what makes our way of life so unique,” says Gustafson. “The West is so colorful and vibrant. What makes it so enchanting to me is this hybrid of existence that draws its sustenance from so many different streams.”

Having grown up primarily during the 1960s and ’70s, Gustafson gravitates naturally to the country-rock-funk-jazz-blues upheavals of that period―“that,” he adds, “and having my Dad sing all those earthy folk and cowboy songs in the family living room … I was lucky to grow up with such musical diversity.” Hence the new album’s wealth of Chuck Berry guitar licks against cowboy-style chording.

“I still hang out with some of the toughest ranahans in cowboydom,” explains Gustafson. “When I peek into their CD collections, I am always amazed:  Jimmy Reed, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Simon & Garfunkel, AC/DC, Bob Marley, the Stones.”

Such revelations are nothing new, even though they always seem new: Bob Nolan, of the Sons of the Pioneers, once explained an open-secret formula for their ensemble’s soulful harmonies: “See, we used to hang out in the same [recording] studio with the Delta Rhythm Boys, back in the 1940s,” Nolan said, referring to a popular black-ensemble harmonizing act of the day. “We’d trade ideas and material, back-and-forth, and sooner or later you just wind up trading your very influences. There’s very little difference between ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ [a Sons of the Pioneers standard] and ‘Old Man River,’ the way the Deltas used to do it.”

Gustafson credits his yodeling―and the discovery that such singing still has popular commercial appeal―with buying him the freedom to delve more deeply into cutting and the equestrian life overall. The benefits are reciprocal.

“You need an inspiration to write good music, whether it’s horses or the cowboy lifestyle or whatever,” says Gustafson. “I sing Western music, and I think it is important that I live the Western lifestyle.

“If you listen to Hooves of the Horses, he adds, referring to an earlier album, “you’ll see how a lot of those songs were inspired by sitting on a horse.”