Winning an award is always sweeter when you revere the people bestowing it.

It’s no surprise then that Montana artists Wylie Gustafson and Paul Zarzyski are feeling mighty bullish after winning the 2010 Spur Award for Best Western Song of the Year.

The song “Hang-n-Rattle!” was chosen by the Western Writers of America at the group’s June 23-26 convention in Knoxville, Tenn.

Zarzyski won a separate Spur Award for “Bob Dylan Bronc Song,” which was selected as the Best Western Poem. It was Zarzyski’s second poetry award from the group. The poem and “Hang-n-Rattle!” are both on Wylie and The Wild West’s “Hang-n-Rattle!” album. The poem is a hidden track on the CD. The album was produced by John Carter Cash and recorded at Cash Cabin Studio near Nashville, Tenn.

Gustafson said he especially appreciates being honored by people who place value in cowboy art and music.

“When I decided I was going to be a cowboy singer, I came to terms that I had a very good chance of being ignored by popular culture, for the most part, for singing about the life that really meant a lot to me, but maybe not to so many other people,” Gustafson said. “So for an organization to recognize us in that genre ? it’s huge.”

Zarzyski said that it is worth traveling thousands of miles to receive an award for his hard work.

“When you work very hard to come up with something you feel busts down fences, and somebody realizes you’ve worked hard to do that, and they acknowledge it with an award, it makes it worth flying all the way to Knoxville to get it,” he said. “But the bottom line is, I have three plaques and when I die somebody can sell them on eBay.”

Given each year for distinguished writing about the American West, the Spur Awards are one of the oldest and most prestigious in American literature. Traditionally awarded for novels, short stories, articles, books, poetry, screenplays and documentaries, the guild introduced the song category in 2007. Past winners of the Best Western Song award are John Chandler and Mike Blakely.

Like all good songs, Gustafson said, the key phrase in “Hang-n-Rattle!” came from a conversation ? this one was about Zarzyski’s bronc-riding past.

“Back in the ’70s I went to Billings to learn to ride bucking horses,” Zarzyski said. “We ran into some wild horses and none of us so-called students were anxious to strap riggings on those broncs. We’re all peddling around the shoots, and a five-time champion bareback (rider) came around and asked us, ‘Did you come to ride or did you come to hide?’ That phrase came back to me later on. Wylie said there was a song, and I needed to write it, so it started from there.”

Gustafson said collaborating with Zarzyski has made him a much better songwriter.

“It’s been a blessing beyond description,” Gustafson said. “Paul, to me, is not just one of the great cowboy poets. His poetry defies description and defies genres. He pays attention to each and every word of every line ? and every word makes a difference to him. It’s been a really good thing for me as a songwriter.”

In turn, Gustafson said their fans have come to expect and appreciate that level of writing in all of their songs.

“Our audiences, especially some of the Western and folk audiences, care about the words. They insist on finding a lyric that evokes a feeling or resonates with the West, and not in an empty way,” Gustafson said. “It’s easy to talk about wagon wheels and coyotes howling at moons. That’s the superficial West. The real West, you have dig a little bit deeper, but it’s everywhere. It’s common, but it’s uncommon, too.”

Gustafson and his band will play a free concert tonight at 7 p.m. in the Choteau City Park. His band will be the feature entertainment for the Fourth of July bash the town holds each year. Gustafson said he’s excited to play for the people who had a hand in shaping his life.

“I can’t wait to see the familiar faces of the neighbors I grew up with,” Gustafson said. “I’m really proud of my heritage, proud of my native land, and it is always a special treat for me to go sing to the people that have shaped who I am. Hopefully I’ll be able to give back a little bit, as well.”

To listen to clips of all of Wylie and The Wild West’s songs and to order any of the band’s albums, check out their website at wylieww.com.

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