Dusty’s Crooning Cowboy Make Music With A Message
By Mike Lee
Hearld Staff Writer
DUSTY – Just across the dale from the white-steepled church where he sings I’ll Fly Away on Sundays, Wylie Gustafson and his horse Cupcake break over the hill at a slow walk. Below them, 30 head of cattle file toward the ranch gate, their hooves sounding like heavy rain on a tin roof as they shuffle through the stiff stubble.
It’s rained maybe one inch in this west Whitman County dot-on-the-map since March, and the cows kick up a thick trail of dust – apparently unimpressed that Wylie, as he known to almost everyone, just returned from Japan and a highly successful country western music show. “You kind of have to develop a persona on stage and be kind of confident,” said Wylie, who judges he’s a throwback to the good old days of Western cowboy tunes. “Out here on the arena, it’s based on humility. If you try to force the cattle, you will get hurt.” Nor, it seems, are folks overly impressed at the Dusty Cafe, where the poet of the Palouse eats breakfast every other day when he’s not touring outside the nation’s largest wheat-producing county. Wylie is slender as the rye grass that slapped his chaps as he rounded up calves for sale last week. A metal bridge of tiny round glasses rests on his thin face under a white straw cowboy hat hiding a light patch of brown hair. He’s a real cowpoke and champion team roper – just the kind that big country stars sing about. Despite his semi-famous stature as a singer-songwriter in Nashville and Los Angeles, Wylie enjoys the kind of anonymity that comes in a town where virtually everyone is related through three German Protestant families that settled here around the turn of the century. Wylie, who married into one of those families, uses his music to preserve the rural life – in all its romanticized glow – in a country that seems to have passed by such antiquities. “That lifestyle needs to be saved,” said Wylie, whose family recently leased out its wheat land to a larger farm operation with a better chance of making a profit. “These families around here are barely hanging on.” The cafe is the place where Dusty (pop. 12) meets for breakfast, which comes in options No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4. Combine operators, ranch hands and farm chemical salesmen stop there to read papers from Spokane, Seattle and New York. “When I go to Seattle, I don’t think they realize what goes on out here, that we create food for the entire world,” Wylie said. The big cities are where the fate of Dusty rests as the nation ponders removing the four Lower Snake River dams to help recover near-extinct salmon and steelhead. They are breaching the dams in the name of conservation. They are bitin’ the hand that feeds a hungry nation. Wylie, 38, started singing and riding horses about the same time as a kid in the ranching and farming town of Conrad, Mont., 50 miles northwest of Great Falls. In high school and college at the University of Montana, his band played for dances and wherever else it could. By 16, Wylie knew he’d be a singing cowboy. He crooned in bars six nights a week and moved to Los Angeles for seven years to participate in the vestiges of its once-popular country culture. He tells the story in his 1997 album Way Out West: A voice inside calling me awayyyyy/from the dirt roads of Kern County to the sidewalks of L.A. Ten years ago, after he caught the eye of Kimberley Broeckel in a Spokane club, the two were married and have spent the last five years on the Broeckel homestead next door to the house where Kim grew up. Since then, however, he’s spent the majority of his lyrical energy on cattle calls and range riding, doing for the Wild West what Jimmy Buffett does for Key West. Wylie’s songs don’t get much air time, even on country radio stations, which seem to be looking for the newest sound rather than something as dusty as a 1950s rockabilly mixed with soulful yodeling. “People who like their country music a little bit different usually like us,” said Wylie, who writes many of his own songs for a four-member band. Often, he’s out of town touring the Northwest onstage or recording in Nashville, a town he doesn’t want to get too musically close to. So Wylie keeps his distance, singing about a life even more romantic than his own idyllic dale – drinking coffee from a can and pining for women named Rose-Marie without a plugged nickel to get to town. His style of Western folk often appeals to the older generation, but it’s gained quite a following with the younger set in Seattle. “To them, we’re alternative to alternative,” Wylie said. Wylie learned yodeling from his father, who did it on the ski hills of Montana or any other time he was feeling especially good. But Wylie didn’t realize what a hit it would be until a performance in Los Angeles 10 years ago when a yodel stopped everyone in the club. “I planned it, but I had no idea it would get such a big reaction,” Wylie said. “It was then that I realized people wanted to hear yodeling. At least it was a way to get attention.” Last year, he released Total Yodel!, calling it a “lost art that deserves to be resurrected and echoed far and loud.” We can save God’s creatures/But let’s do it right/Let’s have all the facts/Shed a little light. Despite his brushes with fame – at least the kind that comes with appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and in front of 20,000 Western-clad Japanese – Wylie’s heart is on the farm, as evidenced in his new CD Ridin’ the Highline, to be released in February. But it was a single he cut this summer in Spokane that’s got Wylie’s attention these days. Save Our Dams – a fast-paced ditty with an infectious refrain – is the only political song Wylie’s written and probably his last. He doesn’t intend to rewrite Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Collection, re-released in 1987 by Rounder, the same company that releases Wylie’s albums. The dams song isn’t necessarily getting lots of air time in the Tri-Cities. One country station didn’t even know about it. And, of course, by virtue of the song being country, it’s not likely to strike a chord with the bureaucrats and East Coast politicians that will ultimately have a big say in the dams’ fate. Nonetheless, the song is his contribution to a cause that farmers are not necessarily well organized to fight – and one that the Grant County Farm Bureau wants to hear when he performs at its annual banquet on Thursday. “Hopefully, it will get people to listen to our side of the dams issue,” said Wylie, who penned several verses in a few hours. “I had a lot to say.” By doing so, Wylie cast himself as a Guthrie for the modern age, a man dedicated to saving the dams that Guthrie’s songs sold to the American public, the dams that brought hydropower and took the Old out of the West. Taking out the dams would increase shipping costs for vast reaches of the Inland Empire, pushing farms already struggling with low wheat prices closer to the edge. But the newspapers at the Dusty Cafe didn’t tell that story – at least not well enough to please the people who live there. “It has the farmer worried,” Wylie said. “They need more voices out there supporting their cause and presenting their side of the story.” Wylie said he’d rather farm than sing, but the economics of cows and wheat won’t allow it – and they probably never will, he fears, without barge transportation down the Snake River. “It’s not so much save our dams,” said Wylie, “as it is save our family farms.” Save our dams/Save our dams/Make a little room for a hard-workin’ man.
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