The Palouse doesn’t look much like cowboy country.
Farm caps outnumber Stetsons. Combines ran out cattle a long time ago.
But out on the western edge, where the ground bakes in the Cascades’ rain shadow and the wind blows the dust that gives this town its name, a few ornery die-hards have insisted on grazing more than a head or two.
Now there’s this maverick, Wylie Gustafson.
He’s got Buddy Holly glasses and finger-in-the-socket hair that he dyed red in his L.A. days, but he does sport a Stetson, and it’s not one of those wide-brimmed kites they wear on the County Music Association awards. He wears Levis (33x34) instead of Wranglers, but he can rope and ride and he has 30 head of cattle on Alkali Flat.
He writes songs with quirky lyrics like “If Jesus loves me, why can’t you?” But you should hear him warble “Cattle Call,” Tex Owens’ paean to the lonesome cowboy life. He has three CDs, including “Way Out West,” put out this month on Rounder, one of the nation’s finest independent labels.
This week he’s in Nashville recording “Yodelmania,” a personal tribute to the West’s brand of high lonesome. Yes, he hopes to have it in stores for Christmas.
Did we mention that he’s played at the Grand Ole Opry several dozen times?
That may pale compared to being able to say “take it Merle” and having Merle Haggard himself moan:
Here I sit, devastated,
My libider derailed and deflated.
Got nowhere to go,
An ugly girl told me no.
Wylie’s words, those.
Country music’s talent pool may be concentrated in big cities like Nashville and Los Angeles, but this yodeler does fine living with his wife Kim - granddaughter of the local Appaloosa breeder Ben Krom - on her family’s farm by the Walla Walla Highway. He’s part of the tiny congregation at the Country Bible Church one mile down the road. He can visit at the Dusty Cafe two miles up the road. And he can manage his 200-plus days on the road with the fax machine and e-mail.
And he’s where his songs are.
“The music that I do ties directly to the area and region that I call home, which is the West,” Gustafson, 36, said last week over a burger at the Dusty Cafe. “It’s taken a while to be able to allow myself to sing about what I sing about best, and that’s the Western region and the lifestyle. Most artists don’t have that luxury - to sing about what they want to sing about.”
His cowboy roots go back to Browning, Mont., on his family’s ranch near the Two Medicine River. He bears the scar where his brothers branded him at the age of two. Had it been with the family’s Cross Three brand instead of a hot stick, he said, “my parents probably wouldn’t have felt too bad about it.”
His dad, a veterinarian, author and amateur cowboy singer, introduced him to the music of the Sons of the Pioneers and Elton Britt, “king of the cowboy yodelers.”
“He comes from good people,” vouched Baxter Black, cowboy poet and National Public Radio commentator, who puts Gustafson in the sophisticated, underplayed category of Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang. “He plays like a lunatic, but he’s a very nice person.”
Let’s let Gustafson’s semi-autobiographical “Yodeling Fool” pick up the story here.
A small town boy from Montana,
He wore a red bandana,
With a guitar always close at hand.
Led by his intuition, he had but one ambition:
To become the greatest yodeler in the land.
You could find him on the streets, in the alleys, in the bars,
Correcting and perfecting his tune.
But the townsfolk just laughed and turned their backs.
He was the local yodeling fool.
He went to the University of Montana, mostly to join the Missoula music scene and get away from fixing fences. Two years later, he was on the Northwest club circuit playing a mix of alternative music and Chuck Berry - “what the college kids wanted at the time.”
He met his wife while playing with The Talk at the Rocking Horse in Spokane in 1984.
“My mother always said I would never meet anybody nice in a bar,” she said.
They left for Los Angeles in 1986 and Gustafson gravitated towards Bakersfield-style R&B-based; country music. He also began working on his yodeling, a staple of cowboy music that he mastered with the help of a reel-to-reel tape recording of Austrian yodeling lessons.
He practiced every day.
He practiced every night.
His songs seemed to be his only friend.
One day he disappeared and the townsfolk cheered,
“Hooray, we’ll never have to hear him again.”
No longer on the streets, in the alleys, in the bars,
Could you hear his lonesome tune.
For the boy had gone and taken with him his song
Of the local yodeling fool.
In 1992, he had a band - the Wild West Show - and a baritone voice that could bend around a strong repertoire of traditional honky tonk covers and his own passel of occasionally tongue-in-cheek tunes. He just didn’t have a record.
Leaning on a $10,000 credit card limit, Gustafson flew a cameraman to his father’s ranch and recorded the stunning scenery for a video of “This Time.” Gustafson got the tape to Country Music Television, where its airplay included two weeks in a heavy rotation.
“When I gave it to them I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll have an album out,”’ Gustafson said. “I was lying through my teeth.”
But the video did lead in 1992 to his first album, “Wylie and the Wild West Show.” After playing with Merle Haggard for a week in Las Vegas, he cut the 1994 record, “Get Wild,” at Haggard’s studio ranch in Palo Cedro, Calif.
But lyrics like “I feel a whole lot more like I do right now than I did a while ago” have yet to find a large following. Sales of his first two CDs were around 25,000 per issue, Gustafson said. Yodeling on commercials for Porsche, Miller Lite and Taco Time helps pay the bills.
Not that he wants to court the market for contemporary country music. For the most part, he said, it’s “bad rock and roll,” divorced from the rural way of life he returned to by moving to Dusty three years ago.
“Sometimes I’m embarrassed to call myself a country musician,” he said. “By today’s definitions and standards, it’s not something I’d be proud of.”
Last week, “Way Out West” opened in the 35th spot on the Americana chart, a new measure of neo-traditional music that covers radio stations outside the country mainstream. The album was also the most added album in the past two weeks, guaranteeing it will hit this week’s chart with a bullet.
Take it Wylie …
Well one day farmer Bill had his truck parked on the hill,
With his radio blaring ‘cross the town.
Well now who should he hear coming in so loud and clear,
It was that local yodeling clown.
They could hear him on the streets, in the alleys, in the bars,
A voice that rang so true.
They heard that shout. They knew without a doubt,
It was that local yodeling fool. , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 Color)