Wylie & The Wild West – Home on the range — really
“There’s no mystery,” says Wylie Gustafson of Wylie & the Wild West, “to what we’re doin’.”
Home in eastern Washington between shows to promote Ridin’ The Hi-Line, his third release on Rounder, Gustafson is smack in the middle of the mise en scene that feeds his muse. “When I’m off the road, my wife and I have a working cattle ranch out here, and we’re getting kicked by cattle and shit on.” He chuckles, and refers to this latter element as a “humility factor.”
The songs on Ridin’ The Hi-Line are sung over a backdrop of sage, sand and cottonwoods populated by a cast of cows, cowdogs, cowboys and coyotes. From his upbringing on a Montana ranch to his current status as self-employed wrangler, Gustafson is one singer who has earned the right to appear on an album cover wearing a cowboy hat.
Gustafson’s dedication to the cowboy way — in life and song — moved WSM disc jockey and Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs to pen liner notes for Ridin’ The Hi-Line hailing Wylie as “one of the most believable artists in country music.” Believable. It’s an interesting adjective.
“He [Stubbs] understands that we’re a band that’s paying close attention to the traditions of country music,” says Gustafson. “We’re trying to honor and respect that tradition.”
Still, Wylie wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea. “I consider myself a western music artist, and that conjures up a lot of different images for a lot of different people, I guess. I grew up listening to guys like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who are also, to me, western artists. They’re not always singing about cowboys, but to me western music is more than just about cowboys and traditional western music.
“I didn’t want to be an artist that just was re-doing Sons Of The Pioneers songs. I grew up in the rock ‘n’ roll era, and that soul and spirit of rock ‘n’ roll still exists in me today — the need to be yourself and be different — and I don’t want to just copy and emulate a style that’s been around for 40 years. I want to take it into the new era, into the future.”
There was a time, back in the early ’90s, when Wylie’s sound caught the ear and eye of Nashville. A spate of videos on CMT and TNN followed, and you can hear the influence of commercial twang on the pre-Rounder releases. “We used to let Nashville influence us a little bit, but with the last couple albums, Nashville has been the last thing on my mind when we go into the studio,” Gustafson says. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that the tootling clarinet on “Yodeling Cowhand” would have survived the Nashville system, and as far as Wylie’s signature yodeling…forget about it.
Crisp and clean, Ridin’ The Hi-Line sounds as if it were recorded in a studio filled with pure prairie air. “I’m kind of a minimalist,” says Wylie. “Whether it’s live or in the studio, I don’t want to be overproduced or over-rehearsed and come off too slick. If it’s a first take and it sounds good, we keep it.” He is frank, however, about the drawbacks of studio recording. “We try to imitate our live shows in the studio, but it’s extremely difficult. Our live show is better than our recordings. I’ve come to terms with that.”
Indeed, more than one reviewer has documented Wylie’s ability to deliver a flying scissors-kick in rhythm. But, looking forward to a time when such a thing may not be possible, he feels blessed by his genre. “One of the things that really attracted me to American roots music is that it’s easy to age gracefully,” he says. “When I moved down to Los Angeles in 1986, I had just come out of a rock ‘n’ roll band — I was probably 25 years old, and I felt silly doing some of the rock ‘n’ roll things then!
“It’s easy in rock ‘n’ roll to look old. It’s easy to be 30 or 35 or 50 years old and do American roots music, because it’s ageless. I see 18-year-old kids playing in bluegrass bands or western bands, and it really impresses me that they can make it their own and make it seem real natural, but at the same time I can go to a cowboy music gathering and see an 80-year-old guy up there singing the same song and it still looks right.”
That same principle seems to apply to the music’s audience, Wylie observes. “The young crowd we’re attracting, I always kind of wonder why these people come to see our shows, and why they like the music, and I don’t know the answer to that,” he says. “I don’t know why they’re buying into it, other than the fact that there’s something real about the music that they can’t find in other forms or styles of music.”