Wylie Gustafson and The Wild West
"I don't like cowboy music, but I like you guys."
Greg Harness talks with Wylie Gustafson about The Wild West.
I met with Wylie Gustafson during the 30th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, where he was making his 15th festival appearance. This year his stay was cut short because his father, Rib Gustafson, was inducted in the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame that same weekend. Still, he put on three shows in Elko, held a formal autograph session, and made time for a number of press interviews before making the 14-hour drive back to northeastern Montana to be with his father.
Gustafson and his band, Wylie & The Wild West, had just released their most recent recording, Relic. When we started our interview, I referred to the opening track, “21st Century Blues,” which contains the lyric, “Them radio DJs won't play my song, and no one's ever heard of me.” I told him that, naturally, this was the first track from the album that I played on my radio show. Wylie chuckled. “Yup, the Western DJs do love that song. I'm going to have to write a new one now. Them radio DJs do play my songs, and still no one's ever heard of me.”
One of my favorite Wylie songs is “Buck Up and Huck It,” and I confessed that while I love that song I'm not really sure what it means. Wylie chuckled again. “That phrase can mean whatever you want it to mean.” In addition to a heavy touring schedule, Gustafson also has a Montana ranch where he raises and trains quarter horses. This particular song was inspired by actual events involving a grizzly bear, a young and not-quite-trained horse, and one of his steers who got into the neighbor's garden. “Neighbors,” Wylie sighed. “The reason most of us moved out here to the West was to get away from neighbors. You can't talk to them, but you can write a song about them.”
The American West in general, and Montana in particular, provides fodder for many of his songs, and Gustafson writes about the people and places of the West, and also uses the West as metaphor. A few of his songs are pure cowboy, but many take Western ideals a step further. “Powerful songwriting comes from what you know about,” he stated. “And I'm inspired every day to write about this landscape.”
I asked him how that Western ideal plays out when he tours in other parts of the country, and Gustafson noted that the show does change. “In the East we play more festivals, and we tend to play more covers and more rockabilly with more volume.” He says that's how he often plays on the west coast too. “We'll be in Seattle, and someone will come up and say, 'I don't like cowboy music, but I like you guys.'”
Wylie Gustafson and Sam Platts at the 2014 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
As part of the US State Department's program for cultural diplomacy, Wylie & The Wild West have been to Brazil, Argentina, and Russia. Most recently they toured China. “We played our music and tried to win their hearts. In China, the younger generation knows English, but it's the music that speaks to them. And wherever you are, good music is good music.” The big difference with Chinese audiences: “The closer you get to sounding like Elvis, the more they like it.”
My personal introduction to the band came in the early 1990s. At the time Wylie was living in eastern Washington state, and so was I. I've listened to him for most of his career, and I'm amazed at how many records he's put out - nearly two dozen albums in the past 25 years.
“About once a year I'm ready to get back into the studio so my fans can hear new music. I think of it as a Grateful Dead marketing strategy.” In the last few years, while he is writing plenty of new material, he has also re-recorded songs from earlier days. He says that's because the songs and the way he interprets them have changed. “The younger Wylie had more energy, but the older Wylie has more soul.”
Having just seen him play, I didn't sense any lack of energy. The festival in Elko takes place on multiple stages in multiple buildings, and his first show was done solo on a Thursday in the early afternoon in a school gymnasium to a fairly small audience. Yet he had people on their feet, clapping and hollering and singing along like it was the Saturday night dance. “I work these shows, starting slow and easy, and then I try to work them into a frenzy. And the best way to do that is to play a polka song with yodeling!”
Gustafson reminisced about his early years playing the club circuit on the west coast. “There'd be nights when we were playing to two people. But my job is to get to know each audience, and to give them something special.” Noting that people have a number of ways to find entertainment these days, he closed out our interview with his philosophy for putting on any show. “The fact that anyone is out there in a seat is amazing. I never forget that.”
Wylie and the Wild West online: www.wyliewebsite.com
Find out more about The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering at The Western Folklife Center
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