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Wylie enters paradise

By Clarissa Sansone, November 2001

Page 2...

"Now," he proudly states, like a detox patient who has remained clean, "there is absolutely no Nashville at all in our sound."

The band worked mainstream aspirations out of its system, and "we've been on independent labels ever since."

The Wild West's last four albums have been on Rounder Records, a label Gustafson says "is really a blessing because they exert no creative influence in the studio."

In fact, not many people but Gustafson and his band influence their sound. Although their self-titled 1992 album was produced by Will Ray of the LA music scene, and 1997's "Way Out West" by Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, Gustafson has self-produced subsequent efforts. "I don't think I'm too much of a control freak," he reasons, but "I'm the best producer I know in my price range."

In addition to charging himself a modest producer's fee, Gustafson is probably one of the few people able to tastefully incorporate yodeling into his songs, teasing out the art of it while refuting its parlor-trick image.

Gustafson, a sample of whose talent can be heard at the end of commercials, has spent years crafting his yodels, be they the slow, mournful kind or the multi-syllabic, acrobatic kind.

It's a lifelong pursuit, "something you keep learning as you get older," says Gustafson. "It's an art form, and it deserves to be out there," he says in defense of the yodel.

Gustafson initially picked up yodeling when he was a child, from his father, but it was time spent woodshedding with Franzl Lang that enabled him to perfect it. Not face to face though.

Lang was an Austrian yodeler whose reel-to-reel instructional tapes Gustafson procured from an aunt and uncle. The tapes were "an eye-opener," and apparently worth it.

"When we yodel in a live performance, people love it," he says. The Wild West is always sure "to do a song or two on every album" that feature Gustafson's most impressive and idiosyncratic musical skill.

While a yodeling cowboy backed by a Western outfit seems primed to slip into the role of a Grandson of the Pioneers or a Slim Whitman imitator, Gustafson works hard to keep his music fresh, and "that's really tough; it's really hard to do," he says.

"We don't want to be a retro-Western band," he declares; "there has to be some life to a song."

"One of my primary goals is to take (Western music) in a new direction," says Gustafson. "I always strive to put a twist to our music."

That twist is usually the "soul" and "energy" that Gustafson carries with him from his rock-and-roll beginnings. He says that initially, at the cowboy gatherings where he often performs, "I felt maybe a little timid about my rock-and-roll roots," but soon realized that "even the extreme cowboys" responded to the band's rock element. "We've found that that's what people like about us," he says.

"It's always been important to me for my songs to relate to the real cowboys," he says. He holds that Western music in fact does have a primarily Western following, so keeping close to his regional roots is important to Gustafson. "I think they (Westerners) connect to the music a little more easily and readily," he says.

Believable words from a man who once engaged in a two-week tour of Walmart parking lots, and, on a rainy day of the tour, found his band set up in the lingerie department. He describes that gig as "one of those things you'll remember for the rest of your life."

When he's not singing to a rack of bras, Gustafson helps run the ranch he and his wife live on. Past interviewers have made much of Gustafson's "authenticity," but really, does breaking horses have anything to do with making music?

Well, yes, according to Gustafson. "It plays a large part in our music, and to a large degree what I write about" comes from living the cowboy life, he says. "All of my songs emote a feeling of being on a ranch," he adds.

Ranching, to Gustafson, is more than a hobby between tours or a means to acquire song material. "It's a lifestyle. It's the way I was brought up; it's the way my wife was brought up. It gets in your blood," he says.

Nor is it an occupation he needs to keep afloat as a musician; in fact, "The music keeps us in the ranching business," says Gustafson. "There has to be a level of sanity, and that means having a life outside the music business" - Gustafson's ranch affords him that sanity.

When he's not on the road, a typical day for Gustafson is split between mind-clearing manual labor and music business busywork. He gets up at six, and after reading the morning paper goes out to feed his 7 horses, 30 cows and 7 buffalo.

"I really enjoy that part of the day," he says. He spends the rest of the morning inside "paying bills, advancing tour dates" and attending to the administrative duties that he says compose 80-90 percent of what he does as a musician. He usually doesn't even have time to work on his songwriting, "and that's the hardest part of the business for me," he says.

By the afternoon he is ready to blow off some steam. "I go rope in the a little fence - whatever there is to do here."

Gustafson readily describes the details of the Western lifestyle, but is hard-pressed to offer a concise definition of Western music, even though the Wild West is a self-described "Western" band. What he's sure of is that "the definition changes."

"Western music includes not only cowboy," he says, but encompasses several musical styles on the sunset-side of the Rockies, including Western swing, the Bakersfield sound and Ernest Tubb-style Texas music.

"Bob Dylan can sound Western," Gustafson states, and proves it by including a wistful, troubadoresque version of "Girl from the North Country" on "Paradise."

Gustafson does not hesitate, however, in articulating what Western music, and what his band's music, isn't.

"We don't want to be associated with Shania Twain," he says, after sharing a few choice words regarding Garth Brooks as well. "We are not Nashville; we are not country in the modern sense of the word," he emphasizes. Gustafson says that record stores "throw us in the country bin, and that's about the last place we want to be."

"We still are perceived as a country band," he explains, but concedes, "I don't mind that if it's taken in the right context."

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