A lot of country artists sing about the open range, of roping cattle and kicking up dirt. But how many of them are real life cowboys?
When he isn’t performing, country singer, songwriter and bandleader Wylie Gustafson owns and operates a ranch in Montana, where he primarily breeds and trains horses. Perhaps waking up at 6 a.m. every morning and tending to farm animals isn’t your typical rock star lifestyle, but Gustafson says his time on the road and his time at home have turned out to be complementary.
“The ranch life feeds into the music in the way it inspires me to write songs about this wonderful lifestyle,” Gustafson said during a recent phone interview. “It’s nice to get off the road and have a place to go that’s nothing about music.”
Gustafson has made a career out of writing charming, evocative songs that reflect classic Western themes, conjuring images of grazing cattle, rugged ranch hands and sweeping vistas. He’s also a world famous yodeler, and you’ve probably heard his warble on those ubiquitous Yahoo ads. He’s built up an especially ardent fan base in the Northwest, possibly because his work is a love letter to the region.
“Spokane’s a great market for us, always has been,” Gustafson said. “We still have a loyal following there that come out and see us once or twice a year.”
The singing, yodeling cowboy will be hitting town this weekend as a featured performer in the Spokane Symphony’s latest SuperPops concert, and his distinctive Americana tunes will be spruced up with orchestral accompaniment. Gustafson and his band, known as the Wild West, previously performed with the Spokane Symphony in 2010, though Gustafson admits it’s not the kind of gig they often book.
“I don’t want to be a replication of a CD,” he said. “I want our live show to be a little bit different. There’s a lot of engagement with the audience. That’s really important to me, to connect and resonate in a way that makes it a personal experience for whoever’s coming to see us. That you can’t get off of a CD.”
A typical Gustafson show is off-the-cuff and improvisational. He’ll call out a song and the band will follow his lead. A song that typically runs a few minutes might morph into a lengthy, lively jam. But you can’t be as spontaneous when an entire orchestra is backing you up.
“The symphony’s not going to follow you; you have to follow the symphony,” Gustafson said. “The dynamic of the music really sets a mood. To be a songwriter, it’s really one of the ultimate experiences, to hear your songs backed by a symphony. Every songwriter should be so lucky to have that happen.”
Gustafson has been playing with his current three-piece lineup for a couple years now, and he expects them to record a new studio album next year. The band will also continue its regular touring schedule, bringing visions of Montana sunsets to audiences everywhere.
“Our music is a reflection of the West – the people of the West, the lifestyle of the West. We really have a unique life out here,” Gustafson said. “A lot of my music is specific to the Northwest. I don’t sing about Texas because I don’t live there. I sing about the Northwest, and specifically our rural lifestyle. To me, that’s very dear and very close.
“But you don’t have to be a cowboy to appreciate our music.”
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