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Wylie enters paradise

By Clarissa Sansone, November 2001

There are cowboys, and there are cowboys and seldom the twain shall meet. Wylie Gustafson, performer of Western music and puncher of cows, will tell you that.

"It's usually a pretty big space between the two," the Dusty, Washington (pop. roughly 11) resident says of the real-deal buckaroo versus the white-hatted, be-spurred Hollywood variety. "The closest they've been to a cow is a carton of milk," he adds, in reference to pretty-boy cowboys.

What about an honest-to-goodness cowboy wearing nerd-chic glasses, who also slaps on a hat and bolo tie to yodel for an audience?

Well, such is the predicament of 40-year-old Gustafson, who has fronted the Western music band Wylie and the Wild West for nigh on a dozen years. "The biggest problem with a cowboy band is getting pigeonholed," he says. "It comes with the territory."

Pigeonholed, that is, as a dress-up novelty act that sings the campfire songs of yore, which is exactly what Wylie and the Wild West isn't. Their latest release, "Paradise," is a mélange of styles - easy Western lope, honky-tonkin' two-steppin' groove, Latin-flavored rhythm, the signature Wylie yodels - and themes, including ranchin', romance and ruckus.

To get listeners to appreciate his band for what it is, the secret, Gustafson divulges, is to win the audience over. "People want something different, and maybe they want to investigate what cowboy music is all about," he says.

To investigate what Wylie is all about, one should begin in the wide-open spaces of northern Montana, where he was born and raised, the youngest son of rancher-traveling veterinarian-yodeler-author Rib Gustafson.

Wylie's older brother Erik was in a rock band, so from an early age, what would become Gustafson's passions - ranching, yodeling, and playing music - surrounded him. In the beginning, though, he shifted his focus away from the first two to concentrate on being a rock musician.

The onset of his teenage years also marked the start of Gustafson's musical education.

"The records I had were blues records by James Cotton or Muddy Waters," he says.

He taught himself guitar by listening to these performers, as well as Chuck Berry, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. "Chuck Berry is country music to me," says Gustafson, who claims to have learned all of Berry's songs early on.

Gustafson was in his first rock group, with Erik, at 14. It was "a high school band that played the Sadie Hawkins dance," covering tunes by Berry as well as ZZ Top.

After high school, Wylie and Erik continued to make music together, this time in a rootsy rock band with the very eighties moniker The Talk. That band too covered "a lot of Chuck Berry," and early Rolling Stones tunes, but it also incorporated "new wave dance stuff" into the repertoire, with versions of songs by Devo and the Talking Heads; even the Sex Pistols provided performance fodder.

Not everything were covers, however. "We always did originals," Gustafson says, and he penned the majority of them.

The Talk released three albums in the early eighties, but the band broke up in 1986. Shortly thereafter, a producer for one of The Talk's albums suggested Gustafson try to break into the LA scene.

So, he moved there, and, following the words of a friend who advised him, "Get a day job; don't be another one of the starving artists," he had stints as a courier and the manager of a small law firm while trying to forward his musical career.

"Musically, it was very diverse," says Gustafson of the LA scene. "There were just a lot of good bands."

People like Dwight Yoakam and Rosie Flores were in the spotlight, "the Orange County rockabilly scene was on fire then," Gustafson says, and he could regularly catch live performances by musicians like Deke Dickerson.

As much as LA influenced Gustafson's musical career, it also affected his day-to-day life.

"LA kind of grinds on you after a while," he comments, adding that, during his years in California, he was present for "riots, earthquakes, fires, famine," and "pestilence." He had formed the Wild West while living there, and the band garnered enough success that Gustafson found himself on the road for about 250 days a year while his wife Kimberly held down the fort by herself.

But it was not an ideal setup for the couple, and they eventually decided to move to Kimberly's "family homestead" just outside the small eastern Washington town of Dusty.

While Wylie and the Wild West raised their musical profile, they decided to court Music City. Sounding a little like a campfire storyteller, Gustafson recounts the days when "Nashville held its ugly grasp upon the band" in the early nineties. At that time, the group had released a video that aired on TNN and CMT and tailored their music to Nashvegas tastes.

But it wasn't worth it.

Gustafson's yodeling, combined with the band's Western bent, was enough to keep the doors of the majors closed to the Wild West. Gustafson says that in 1992 alone they were rejected by 12 labels, largely because their music was perceived as "too weird."

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