Yodeling Fool Seattle Times
by Richard Seven
Lifestyles : Sunday, November 08, 1998
LET YOUR EYES STRAY BENEATH the cheeseburger and omelet prices on the wall inside The Dusty Cafe and you’ll find a display of Wylie Gustafson’s autographed CDs and tapes, including his latest, “Total Yodel.”
Buy an album and the waitress will pick up the phone to see if Wylie is home. He probably won’t be. He could be tending livestock on his Palouse spread, shoring up a corral or even taking his volunteer turn digging graves in Dusty’s community cemetery. Most likely, he’ll be out performing his offbeat country-Western act on some stage in Orofino or Omak or San Bernardino or even Nashville.
If he is home, though, he’ll hop in his rig and get to the cafe within five minutes. He’ll walk up and thank you for giving a small-town country singer, a yodeling cowboy no less, a try.
Wylie will be wearing a compact white cowboy hat nothing like those oversized black ones Garth Brooks and his country-music clones favor. A smaller hat stays on your head in a stiff wind like those that barreled down from the Rockies and across the sprawling ranch near Glacier National Park where Wylie was raised.
He’s 6-foot-1 and fence-post thin, with a face so narrow that even his wire-rim glasses look oversized. People who see him perform tell him he’s a ringer for Buddy Holly, but with his shy smile, light freckles and sweet thank-you’s, he seems more like the Howdy Doody of Honky Tonk.
“Anyone who will take the time to find my music is deserving of my time and thanks,” he says.
From the fuss inside The Dusty Cafe, where Eastern Washington highways 26 and 127 meet 33 miles west of Pullman, you might get the impression that this is the first CD Wylie’s ever sold. But he’s released four albums and popular-music videos, he’s played the Grand Ole Opry about 40 times, and he even performed at a Gene Autry birthday party. He did a duet with Merle Haggard at Haggard’s suggestion. He and his band, The Wild West, are big in Australia and with critics who rummage deep enough in their CD piles to review them. He’s at most record stores, right between Hank Williams Jr. and Tammy Wynette.
He’s got lots of stage charm and a silky baritone that’s at home with Western swing, honky-tonk shuffles, rockabilly, lonely cowpoke lullabies and the wry ballads he writes with words like: “If Jesus loves me, why can’t you?”
He is a clear and resolute yodeler who can do justice to legends Jimmie Rodgers and Elton Britt. He learned to yodel while helping his dad make ranch fences horse-high and hog-tight. He perfected it in L.A., of all places, practicing with a demanding Austrian instructional tape, of all things.
But he’s also been too this or too that for major record labels to take a chance on, or for mainstream country radio to squeeze into its tight, safe playlist. He’s heard the reasons: His music is too Western for country-Western, it’s too edgy, too traditional, a little too odd to sell millions.
So he rides a career as grueling as a cattle drive, adding to the 165,000 miles on his van, playing 150 road shows a year and trying to build a career one fan, one CD, at a time. He must be thankful for small-town radio, like the station down the road in Colfax that once a week does “Waylon, Willie and Wylie Wednesday,” and for that rare passer-by who stops by the remote Dusty Cafe and notices him.
His signature song is “Yodeling Fool,” a semi-autobiographical tale about a small-town Montana boy who, despite ridicule, keeps yodeling until he becomes the “finest yodeler in the land.”
While he did become one of the finest yodelers around, even a 37-year-old optimist must occasionally wonder: Am I a yodeling fool or just a fool? How does a cowboy who lives two miles south of Dusty, and looks too much like Bill Nye the Science Guy, make it in a country-music industry obsessed with steel-guitar pop, tight jeans and great hair?
HE GETS ONSTAGE, that’s how, even a converted hay flatbed adorned by nothing but triangular plastic car-dealership flags at the Jefferson County Fair.
Wylie was dressed in his small white hat, a staid-brown but expensively tailored coat with Western piping, a plain brown tie, black jeans, cowboy boots and a steer-roping belt buckle he earned at Reba McEntire’s celebrity charity rodeo. It’s silver, as big as a trucker’s dinner plate and chafed from brushing against hay bales and guitar bodies. The most cowboy thing about him is the gnarled little finger on his right hand, shaped like Idaho after he got bucked off his horse, Cupcake.
He two-stepped across the stage strumming a cheap guitar stenciled with his name and Western scenery and cruised through “Yodeling Fool.” He yodeled like a shifty halfback runs, changing pace, blasting forward, darting and gliding.
The syllables came out clear but impossibly fast until he wound down: “yodelayhEEEEEEEEEEEEEE” . . . looking at his watch as if he had a couple minutes of this left . . . “EEEEEEEEEEEEE . . .” again checking his watch . . . EEEEEEEEEEEEE . . . then the finish . . . yodelayheedeeOdayodelayeeOteedAyOlayaOhee . . . AWWHAH!” He let loose a big scissor-kick finale, with the band – steel guitar, mando-guitar and drums – smacking the final hard note just right.
The 90 or so nonpaying customers scattered across the grandstands roared for an encore, irking the old guy waiting with a tractor at the corner of the stage, eager to hitch it up and haul it off to make way for the main event: a drag race across a soupy mud field. The driver swooped in the moment “Good Night Irene” finished, dragging the platform away with band members and volunteer roadies still unplugging amps and coiling cords.
Wylie climbed down and stood behind a card table, where he shook hands and sold almost $400 worth of albums, photos and refrigerator magnets. Older people thanked him for playing C&W classics like “Cattle Call” and “Devil Woman.” Younger fans told him he was corn-pone cool.
Then he looked up into the stands suddenly swollen with people cheering and hooting and riveted to the field behind where the stage once stood. A truck was stuck halfway up its doors in mud on the drag strip, sinking deeper as it revved.
“This is gotta be the first time we opened for a mud race, huh, Wylie?” said Ray Doyle, the longtime leader of Gustafson’s band. “But we did open for a bass demonstration in Minnesota once. Remember that?”
Wylie laughed, stubbornly upbeat.
He and the band had played until 2 that morning at a cowboy poetry jam session in Lewistown, Mont., grabbed two hours’ sleep, driven two hours to Great Falls, caught an early flight to Seattle, gotten in the Isuzu Trooper Wylie had left at the airport days before, sped up Interstate 5, boarded the Edmonds-Kingston ferry, all to perform a 45-minute early-afternoon show with more sheep behind the stage than people in front of it.
It didn’t seem to matter, as he signed autographs, that his van, carrying some of the band’s equipment, was broken down somewhere near Spokane.
That’s the road-dogging life, and there would be plenty more in the months ahead: fairs in Moses Lake, Salem and Minneapolis; a Central City, Colo., casino; a Sun Valley gig in Idaho; private parties and remote bars; and a week in Nashville including a two-night shot at The Opry and points beyond.
It would include a trip to Elko, Nev., where he found out after driving 1,000 miles that another act had been mistakenly booked in his place, and a seven-day dude ride through Utah canyons where he was the campfire entertainment until a horse kicked him, breaking his leg. “I guess it didn’t like yodelers,” he said, continuing to tour.
Each stop was an audience, a chance to win fans who might spread the word and make him so popular in a grassroots way that the major labels and radio would have to embrace him and his music.
“I like Wylie,” said a Nashville agent who shepherded another ambitious act at the Jefferson County Fair. “Wylie’s sincere, and God, he’s talented. I just don’t think Nashville knows what to do with him. He should have come along 20 years ago.”
YODELING CAME naturally, but Wylie never would have given it a thought if his father hadn’t done it and played Slim Whitman records at home.
Rib (short for Rib-tickler) Gustafson was a northern Montana veterinarian who drove 100,000 miles a year for almost 50. He’d make house calls to birth calves, remove stink glands from skunks and kidney stones from cats, and castrate bulls – brain surgery, he called it. He worked in blizzards, chased down ailing critters and always kept an eye out for a flying hoof or an angry horn. He sometimes got paid with a calf. He wrote two books about his adventures, some witnessed by his kids, including Wylie, the youngest.
Rib, who still lives in northern Montana with wife, Pat, would yodel on the long drives to work and family trips and while working on the ranch. Wylie was the only one of his five children with much aptitude for it. Rib would also play guitar and sing songs like “Cattle Call,” prodding his children to sing and dance.
By 15, Wylie was more impressed with his rock-‘n’-rolling brother, Erik, than with yodeling. He taught himself how to play the guitar to James Cotton and Chuck Berry records. The brothers wound up at the University of Montana in a band called The Talk, playing cover tunes by Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and other edgy rock acts. They barnstormed the roadhouses and college pubs, and Wylie became hooked for good when they easily won a Battle of the Bands contest, got recorded and heard themselves on the radio.
“Here I was just off the ranch and on Missoula radio,” he says. “That was something I couldn’t ignore.”
Erik tired of touring and bars and went back to playing country, which he still does when not teaching high school. Wylie met his future wife, a young woman from Dusty named Kimberly Broeckel, at a Spokane show in 1984. He was ready for the spotlight and she wanted to get out of Dusty. They moved to L.A. in 1986.
In the first weeks there he dented actor Ned Beatty’s car and received his first celebrity cursing. He took a day job as a law-firm clerk while playing at open-mike sessions and clubs at night. He became entranced by the lively C&W scene, quit rock and became a regular at L.A.’s Palomino Club.
His early act had a distinct rock leaning, and he stood out with his tousled hair dyed red (his wife’s idea, he says), flashy clothes and supple voice.
He attracted Southern California critics, won talent contests and met performers both famous and soon-to-be. But the seminal moment came when Kimberly, who worked as a makeup artist, brought her hip friends to one of his performances. They were bored – until they heard him slip in a yodel. Then, suddenly, Wylie was cool.
He tracked down an Austrian yodeling tape, honed the skill and wrote “Yodeling Fool.” He called his dad and declared, “Yodeling’s gonna make me famous.”
He achieved some measure of fame in about 1990, when he used his credit-card limit to finance his first music video of “This Time,” a song Erik wrote. They shot it at the picturesque Montana ranch and shipped it to The Nashville Network and Country Music Television. It instantly became popular, so much so that Wylie hustled out an album, then more videos, then another album, all independently produced.
He was ready to move to Nashville and become a star, but the record companies weren’t interested.
“We talked to every record company,” he recalled, standing in a dusty Dusty field. “They’d say we’re not signing any male acts right now or we’re not signing any acts, period, and just about every other reason. I guess they thought we were too weird.”
It was another five years before Wylie put out another album, “Way Out West,” his third, and the first since moving to Dusty. It was voted the best independent country album of 1997, but it received virtually no promotion.
While the title of his latest album, “Total Yodel,” sounds like a cruel, Slim Whitmanesque yodel-a-thon, Wylie picks his yodeling spots carefully. It’s his retro album, a collection of cowboy classics, a few of his dad’s favorites, and originals. It’s got a stripped-down, old-time honky-tonk sound that recalls those Western singers from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s who seemed to sing through their noses.
“You say `yodeling,’ and people think it’s this goofy thing, and it sure can be,” Wylie says. “But to me it’s expressing an art form, a largely lost one.”
Yodeling is also his meal ticket. He’s managed to yodel his way onto national Mitsubishi, Porche, Miller Lite and Taco Bell ads, a couple of episodes of “Northern Exposure” and a few movie soundtracks. He wrote and performed a yodeling lullaby for an award-winning Montana tourism commercial; it’s perhaps his most popular work.
He’s angling for a guest spot on Letterman or Leno or Conan O’Brien as a novelty act, if nothing else. Yeah, novelty’s good, they’ll say, but do you have any hits?
THREE MORE FAIRS and a blur of shows after Port Townsend, Wylie found himself in Nashville standing just offstage behind the giant red curtain of the Grand Ole Opry, between country-charts star Vince Gill and George Hamilton IV. Wylie was being introduced by Little Jimmy Dickens, a 4-foot-11, 40-year Opry member who wears a suit of powder blue and glittering rhinestones that makes him look, he admits, like Mighty Mouse in pajamas.
The 4,424-seat auditorium was packed with tourists who paid between $16 and $18 a ticket. They sat still, almost reverently, in pew-style seating while about 1 million viewers watched on live TV and millions more listened on the radio.
For Wylie, it was the crescendo of a week of Nashville club gigs, interview shows – including one live at 1 a.m. on the truckers’ network – strategy sessions with manager David Skepner, who used to assist Loretta Lynn, and futile shopping for a newer van.
He had recorded five new songs for his next album, which he says will be more radio-friendly than “Total Yodel.”
There had been an impromptu set in a downtown Nashville club called Robert’s Western Wear, a funky pub selling cowboy boots along one wall and Budweiser along the other. He didn’t hesitate when the night’s performer invited him onstage. Wylie crooned, yee-hawed and yodeled while the college kids danced and hooted. It was impromptu and joyous, stripped of music’s business side. (But you never know who is watching: BR5-49, a red-hot alternative-country band, got discovered on that very stage and is now bankrolled by a major record label.)
The Opry, though, is what brought Wylie to Nashville. It is replete with tired tradition, toupees and tacky ads, but it is still exposure, legitimacy, affirmation, contacts, an audience that pays attention.
He has been invited repeatedly since 1995, because Bob Whittaker, the Opry general manager, loves his voice, music and attitude. “I’ve worn out a lot of stick horses listening to `Cattle Call’ and those other Western songs he does,” said Whittaker.
The Opry crowd loved “Cattle Call,” too. It’s a mournful 60-year-old prairie song tailored for Wylie’s supple voice, which can slide from deep-voiced singing to high-pitched, flutelike moaning and back. “Yodeling Fool” was so popular that applause and cheers kept drowning out the yodeling.
Wylie was so nervous he forgot to plug his new album on live TV, but he made an impression. He lingered backstage, accepting congratulations and soaking up the moment because he knew he’d be back on the road by morning. A major-record label rep approached and claimed interest; he heard through a backup singer that Gill’s manager was impressed.
It reminded him how close he is and what a mystery the music business is.
DUSTY GOT ITS name because it is, but the first song Wylie wrote after moving there is titled “Heaven.”
It sits on the western edge of the Palouse atop a bed of silt dredged up and left by ancient floods. The unincorporated town, with about 30 families in a five-mile radius according to Wylie’s estimate, was once named after an early resident, but Dusty seemed more appropriate in an area where blowing dirt closes roads.
It’s got a white grain elevator, a farm co-op, a gun club and a cemetery, but that’s about it. The one-room Dusty Cafe is the gathering spot, with oil paintings by Wylie’s mother-in-law on the walls and his albums above the lunch counter.
It’s mainly combine country, but you’ll find pockets of cattle and horses, including Wylie’s place. He’s got a few cutting horses, an Appaloosa and a thoroughbred that is granddaughter of Triple Crown winner Secretariat.
He and Kimberly moved to Dusty four years ago after weathering eight in L.A. They live on her family’s turn-of-the-century homestead, where she grew up and her grandfather was born. Her parents live on the same property, also home to 30 cats and one friendly dog. The family worships at a little white church a mile away that the area’s four or five core families have kept going for about 90 years.
Wylie has a mountain of C&W albums, including his current favorite, Sourdough Slim. His bookcase is stuffed with books like “Trails I Ride,” “We Pointed Them North,” “Free Grass To Fence” and his favorite, “Log of a Cowboy,” a fictional account of a Texas-to-Montana cattle drive. His study walls are lined with guitars, Native American artifacts, Western art. He has photographs of himself taken with famous performers, but he’s most proud of autographed black-and-whites of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
He’s linked to the outside world by his computer and a Web site – www.wylieww.com – that he uses to list concert dates, dish news, sell merchandise and maintain a fan club called “Wylie Pals.”
He will sit on his front porch and scan livestock and the empty hills and wide blue skies beyond. This is good yodeling country, he says, because no one can hear you practice. From the shade of his porch, the dreams seem distant and the disappointments far-fetched. If there were justice, Wylie the yodeling cowboy would have been picked to sing “Cattle Call” – a song he not only nails, but understands – on the soundtrack of “The Horse Whisperer,” instead of a mumbling Dwight Yoakam. Then again, who’s Wylie and where’s Dusty?
He still wants to be famous but is no longer counting on a big record company to swoop in and make him so. He is in it for the long haul, he says, and that means far-flung road trips and two-mile jaunts to The Dusty Cafe to thank a surprised customer.
“I know I’d be farther along if I didn’t live in Dusty, but I like knowing everyone and living in a place where you can’t get away with flipping off somebody in traffic. I’m not getting rich, but I’m making a living playing my music. Living here and raising horses and cattle validates the music. I don’t have to work as hard as some to make it sound real.”
You can listen to Wylie and The Wild West perform “Yodeling Fool” by calling the Seattle Times InfoLine, 206-464-2000, from a touch-tone phone and entering category WILD (9453). This is a free call in the local Seattle calling area.
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.