A Dusty Yodeler Comes to the Birchmere
By Joe Heim
Saturday, February 12, 2000
There really is a place called Dusty. Plunked down in the vast plains of eastern Washington state, it’s actually just a speck of a town. There’s a cafe – the Dusty Cafe – a gas station and a couple of shops, but that’s about it. Dusty’s most famous resident – and fame is relative in a town with a population of 12 – is a yodeling cowboy named Wylie Gustafson.
In a time when many country and western singers have about as much in common with rural living as John Rocker has with New York City, it’s refreshing to know that Gustafson lives the life he sings about. The son of a ranch veterinarian – who is also a cowboy folk singer – Wylie grew up in Conrad, Mont., where he learned to rope horses, play guitar and yodel till the cows came home – all by the age of 12.
These days, the 38-year-old Gustafson has a home in Dusty with his wife and his horse, Cupcake (how tough a cowboy do you need to be to name your horse Cupcake?). But for the past 10 years, he has spent much of his time on the road with his band, Wylie and the Wild West, making regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and touring extensively through Europe, Canada and Australia. On Friday the group, which just released its fifth album, “Ridin’ the Hi-Line,” on the Boston-based Rounder label, performs at the Birchmere with Bill Kirchen’s Western Twang Orchestra.
Yodeling, surprise, surprise, isn’t in great demand these days. The Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera didn’t exactly yodel their way to the top of the charts (though Jewel has been known to crank out a verse or two). In fact, other than the annual broadcast of “The Sound of Music,” it is a species of music that goes almost entirely unheard.
Unless you’re in earshot of Gustafson, that is.
On the new album he performs such songs as “Yodeling Cowboy,” “Yodeling My Blues Away” and “Odessa Yodel.” While that may seem like an overabundance of odelay-hee-hoos, Gustafson never lays it on thick. The yodeling is woven into the songs and the band also plays a full share of western swing, traditional cowboy songs, and lonesome Big Sky country ballads.
Gustafson’s classic western voice and yodeling has earned him comparisons with Jimmie Rodgers who was the first country star to introduce yodeling as an integral component of his songs. In addition to Rodgers, Wylie and the Wild West have much in common with such western musicians as Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.
Though it would be easy to classify him as a traditionalist, Gustafson writes songs that acknowledge the past without getting caught in it. His talent as a performer and affinity for the music is such that it keeps him from being classified as a novelty act or anachronism. If the 21st century is ready for a yodeler, Wylie Gustafson is the man for the job.
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