Wylie Gustafson Splits Time Between Music and Ranching
Does anybody remember the TV and radio ads for Yahoo’s search engines? Well, the guy who did the “Ya-hoo” was the artist in today’s Radio Friendly spotlight, Wylie Gustufson. His fine new album, 2000 Miles from Nashville, includes two Nick Lowe covers.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business and why?
Wylie Gustafson: My father, “Rib” Gustafson, would gather us around the living room of our Conrad, Montana, home and sing his quirky repertoire of old cowboy and folk songs. When I was 12 years old, he taught me the two chords to the folk song “Old Blue” and I was soon picking and playing some of the Gustafson family hits. Mom would grab me by the ear and drag me into church. She was a great harmony singer on the old church hymns, and that really stuck with me. When I was 14, my older brother Erik needed a cheap bassist for his high school rock and roll band so I switched from guitar to bass so I could share the stage with his band, the T-Birds.
In 1981 I quit college at the University of Montana to go on the road with our combo, The Talk, that played weeklong stints at all the college towns in Montana and the surrounding states. We recorded three vinyl albums and hawked them from the stage. In 1986 a music svengali from LA saw one of our videos on MTV’s Basement Tapes and eventually invited me to move to the mecca of Hollywood. Our band was at the end of its career so I moved to Los Angeles in search of a bigger audience. After hanging out at the Palomino and seeing bands like Dave Alvin, Rosie Flores, Lucinda Williams, Russell Scott, The Dave and Deke Combo, Big Sandy, Dale Watson, and a few other roots aficionados, I decided it was the perfect time to get back to my folk/ country music foundation.
In 1988 I formed Wylie & the Wild West with guitarist Will Ray. We were regulars on the weekly KRLC airing of Ronnie Mack’s Barndance. My day gig was an office manager at a small law firm in Santa Monica. In 1991 I took a video crew of three up to my family ranch in Montana to shoot a video. I financed the shoot with a credit card that had $7,500 worth of credit. Our video of “This Time” was picked up by CMT and TNN and put into regular rotation. With the help of our manager, Mitch Cohen, we quickly went into the studio and finished recording an album’s worth of material so we could release a CD because of the demand created by our video. Our first album, Wylie and the Wild West Show, was released in 1992 and was distributed by John Prine’s label, Oh Boy Records. In the early ’90s CMT and TNN put several of our music videos in heavy rotation. I quit my day job in 1992 and have been recording and touring ever since.
What have you done since then?
In 1995 we were picked up by Rounder Records and released four albums under their banner. Since then we have released another 16 albums. One was for the Cracker Barrel series produced by Joe Wilson and Josh Kohn of the National Council for Traditional Arts. Two were for Western Jubilee out of Colorado Springs, and the rest were on my home label Hiline Records. I also have written a book and CD titled How to Yodel. Yodeling is so much more than a novelty. It is a lost vocal art that I am trying to keep alive. One of our CDs on Rounder Records was Total Yodel, where I tried to hit on the many American styles of yodeling.
What do you do now?
My current life since the mid ’90s has been a balance between the music business and ranching. I currently live in Conrad, Montana, with my beautiful wife and three wild boys ages 1, 2 and 10. My faith is a big part of my life, so when I’m not touring I am at my little church of 30 members on Sunday mornings singing the old, old hymns. When not touring, recording, and writing songs I am busy raising cattle and quarter horses on the wide open ranges of the northern plains. I own and operate Cross Three Quarter Horses, which my father founded in 1938. We specialize in breeding, raising, training, and selling ranch, rodeo, and cow horses. The two opposing parts of my life create a wonderful balance. The ranching gives me inspiration to write songs about a simple culture and way of life that is largely ignored by cosmopolitan America. The music allows me to get away and obtain some perspective on how lucky I am to live the life of a typical Montanan.
How do you describe your music and or songs to someone who’s never heard you?
High Plains country? Rockin’ cowboy and Western? Everybody wants to put us into a neat and tidy little category. .. it’s pretty hard to do that for a band like us. A lot of the bands that I really appreciate are pretty hard to categorize. My main goal is to create music that celebrates something real. For example: I can never write a song about Texas or Tennessee because I am not a part of that culture. I come from a lifestyle and culture that tends to get completely overlooked and unnoticed. The great Northern Plains is rare and unique. Being overlooked is part of who we are. But just because we are largely ignored by the songwriting world doesn’t mean that it is boring up here. It is a vibrant community that has a lot to celebrate. Hopefully my songs reflect the rare and unique beauty of this place where I thrive.
What was the first artist or album that got you into Americana or roots music?
I’ve always been a huge Nick Lowe fan. It’s funny how the Brits can take American music and add a beautiful twist to it. I have also been a big fan of Paul Burch, Loudon Wainwright, Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Dawson, Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, The Jayhawks, and Tom Russell, to name a few.
Who are your favorite artists of all time?
I never get tired of Hank Williams Sr. Such a depth of lyrical, melodic and musical genius in his short life. Johnny Cash is another wonderful artist that speaks to me in a way I never get tired of listening to. Johnny’s guitarist Luther Perkins to me is one of the great guitar geniuses of all time. Nowadays chicken pickers and Tele-trashers are a dime a dozen, but I still haven’t found a guitarist who can lay down the essence of “real” like Luther. So many young guitarists are mesmerized by the flash and fire of playing a lot of notes real fast, but to me they are totally missing what makes a master. Buck Owens was one of the great Americana artists, in my mind, as he took country music and added that hard-driving, energized rock and roll rhythm that never grows old. Buck’s sound and Don Rich’s simple guitar playing and solid third vocal harmony are a huge influence on what we do. Tom Russell is my favorite contemporary songwriter … the man is a giant with both melody and lyric.
How do you define what Americana music is?
In the early days Americana was kind of a “catch all” for the worthy roots-inspired artists that couldn’t get airplay or didn’t have a nice little niche to fall into. There was a quality to it all because it cared more for the songwriting, the lyric, and the connection with unpolished and unsophisticated American life. You could attend the SXSW festival in the early ’90s and there was nothing commercial or corporate about it. That is what made it so interesting and unpredictable back then. As long as it can keep being unpredictable it will remain healthy. I will let your readers decide if Americana has become to predictable or corporate.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
Hopefully it will head back to a consumer-driven format inspired by the will of the listeners instead of a corporate-driven format inspired by the bottom line.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Anything by Marty Stuart, Paul Burch, Dale Watson, Fred Eaglesmith, Chuck Meade, Steve Earle, and Junior Brown, to name a few. I know those artists date me as “old school,” but these young whippersnappers haven’t completely caught my attention yet.
What are your most memorable experiences from working in the music industry?
Making over 50 appearances on the Grand Ole Opry stage remains the most memorable … not so much being on stage as being backstage to catch all the wonderful music and relationships that go on behind the scenes. Shooting a video with Merle Haggard of our song “Ugly Girl Blues.” Shooting a music video in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Playing with Doc Watson onstage at MerleFest. Singing with Buck Owens in his club in Bakersfield. Recording an album with Ray Benson producing in his studio in Austin. Recording two albums at Cash Cabin with John Carter Cash producing. Hanging out with the “fountain of American musical history” Joe Wilson of the National Council of Traditional Arts fame. Playing Burl Ives’ guitar at the Library of Congress. Singing with Hank Thompson. Playing with great band members over the years like Will Ray and Ray Doyle. Getting to use studio musicians like Dennis Crouch, John McTigue, Mike Henderson, Jeff Taylor, Hoot Hester, Mark Thornton, Chris Scruggs, and Kenny Vaughan. We’ve toured Russia, China, South America, Japan, and Australia along with 48 states in the US. It’s been a wonderful trip.
What projects are you working on next?
I will shoot a music video to promote our new CD this spring. I have another gospel CD I’m working on which will be out next year.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
The audiences that keep buying our albums and showing up at our performances are elemental to our 30 years of existence. We couldn’t do it without them. The best tonic for a musician is having folks sing along and dance to our music. Also I believe in documenting and celebrating through song this wonderful culture where I live.
What are your most proud accomplishments?
Making a living in music for three decades without having a hit record!
Do you have any other interesting hobbies you wish to share?
I am an avid cutting horse and roping enthusiast. These are two old parts of our ancient cattle culture that continue to thrive through rodeo and cutting competitions. They allow me an excuse to be on a horse for large amounts of time. Will Rogers said: “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”
How do you want to be remembered?
A man of faith who used God’s gifts well.