by Deborah Malarek
Wylie & the Wild West
Ridin’ the Hi-Line
It’s been a tragic couple of years for America’s triple crown of singing cowboys. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Rex Allen all left this earth behind for the big bunkhouse in the sky, and in these days of mega-merged record labels and corporate farms, there’s not much of a market for songs about riding horses, roping and wrangling. Cowboy singers, like cowboys, are a vanishing breed.
Luckily, there’s a singer/songwriter in Eastern Washington who isn’t overly concerned about the size of his sales projections. “I’m a dyin’ breed/Yes indeed/You better catch me while you can,” sings Wylie Gustafson of Wylie & the Wild West in the opening moments of the band’s fifth album, Ridin’ the Hi-Line. The lyrics refer to both Gustafson’s style of music and his day job, raising cattle and horses on his Palouse spread. The album is a delight, full of romantic tales of the cowboy way told by someone who is smitten with his lot in life. Gustafson’s voice is fluffy-cloud light as he sings and yodels his way through music that’s airy and carefree, and the mood is infectious enough to start you thinking about buying that land in Montana.
In fact, it’s Montana from which Gustafson hails originally, and the title track refers to an area there along the northern tier of the state, between the North Dakota border and the Rocky Mountain Front, where the Great Northern’s rail line of the same name used to run. The song, “Ridin’ the Hi-Line,” the story of a friend who worked a Hi-Line ranch to heal from his divorce, is a waltz featuring the harmony vocals of Oregon western singer Joni Harms. Her sweet voice hugs Gustafson’s tightly, evoking a dreamy mood on that tune as well as on “The Gather,” a ballad about an annual fall round-up Gustafson participated in as a kid, told through the eyes of a narrator lost in the idyllic nature of it all.
It’s the clearly personal tales that make these songs so genuine. The band’s last album, Total Yodel, was mostly cover tunes, a marvelous tribute to the singers and yodelers Gustafson’s dad played for him as a child, including Jimmie Rodgers, Elton Britt and Slim Whitman. It’s because of these childhood lessons that Gustafson turned some heads making the club rounds in Los Angeles years ago. Yodeling became Gustafson’s hook, and a fine and unique one it is. He is extremely accomplished at it. But both his voice and songwriting are so engaging, he doesn’t need a hook. On Ridin’ the Hi-Line, he yodels on only four of the 15 tracks, and it comes off as a nice touch instead of a raison d’etre.
The musicians of the Wild West are remarkable, too. The classy guitar work of Ray Doyle enchants “Montana Moon,” a slow-dance ballad made richer with Duane Becker’s masterful pedal steel playing and Gustafson’s emotion-drenched vocals. And the band rocks on “Jitterbug Boogie,” a tune tailor-made for swing dancing. The addition of Sam Levin’s playful clarinet to the western swing of songs like “Yodeling Cowhand” and “Ridin’ Rockin’ Rollin'” brings a jazz texture to the mix. “Yodeling My Blues Away” starts with the frolicking fiddle of Hoot Hester, who makes way for pedal steel and Gustafson’s gifted vocals as he sings, “I used to punch a time clock/But now I’m punching livestock/I don’t earn a whole lot/But I’m so happy when I straddle the saddle.” There’s no doubt he means every word, and it’s enviable.
This is the ideal album to aid your escape from the dark dreary days of a Northwest winter, like watching an old movie or sinking into a great novel. It whisks you away to a life other than your own, where even hardships like long hours and poverty seem diminished in light of the abundance of simple joys. “I’m lost in a western dream/Where the sky is clear and the river runs clean,” Gustafson sings on the title track of Ridin’ the Hi-Line, and it’s clear he’s ready, willing and able to carry the cowboy singer’s torch a bit farther down the trail.
No. 319 February 9-23, 2000 © Rocket Magazine, 2000