Celebrity yodeler. Two words you probably never imagined hearing together, in this lifetime anyway.
Certainly Wylie Gustafson never thought he'd be known that way. Growing up on the family ranch in Conrad, Gustafson learned a little yodeling from his dad, R.W. "Rib" Gustafson - who himself learned a little yodeling from his Austrian teammates on the Montana State University ski team. But by the time the tricky vocal technique passed down to Wylie, the heyday of yodeling country singers - of guys like Jimmie Rodgers, Yodelin' Slim Clark, and Slim Whitman - had long passed.
Wylie Gustafson was a child of the rock 'n' roll generation; and for awhile, he chased the rock-star dream. But after rediscovering "the power of the yodel" during a performance in Los Angeles, Gustafson began to craft a new trajectory as a modern yodeler.
That trajectory hit its apogee in 1996, when a then-emerging Internet company called Yahoo! hired Gustafson to yodel the company's name for its television commercials. Yahoo!, of course, went big and gave Gustafson a cultural meme on which to hang his wide-brimmed hat.
Since then, Gustafson has taken his remarkable voice to all corners of the continent, performing on the prestige-girded stages of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and more than four dozen times at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. He has also appeared on Garrison Keillor's popular radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion," and on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
While yodeling serves as the hook into Gustafson's music, it's hardly all he does. In fact, most of the songs in his considerable recorded repertoire are sung straight, in his warm, sometimes gravely mid-range voice. With a penchant for bluesy dobro licks and a rock 'n' roll edge to some of his tunes, Gustafson regularly breaks the mold of a Western cowboy crooner.
Yet there's never any question about the authenticity of his passion for ranch life and his beloved horses. An accomplished cutting horse enthusiast, Gustafson claimed the 2005 NCHA Western National Finals Championship, 2007 Non-Pro Reserve Championship, and was an Open Finalist in 2006 and 2008. Unlike so many of the so-called country singers in Nashville, Gustafson doesn't have to fake a twang to sell his credibility; he just has to sing about what he did this morning.
Earlier this week, I reached Gustafson just after he'd finished the morning chores at the family ranch in Conrad, which he now once again calls home. Following are excerpts from that conversation; for the rest, visit NickellBag.com.
Just as I was calling you, I realized that I know another musical Gustafson from that neck of the woods: Erik "Fingers" Ray. I'm guessing you know him.
Yep, he's my brother ... Most people don't realize we're brothers because he doesn't go by the family name, which he had the foresight to realize people would have a hard time pronouncing. You pretty much have to sneeze in the middle of that last name for it to come out right.
Obviously, being a yodeler puts you in pretty rare company in today's music world. I'm wondering what drew you to this style of musical expression.
To me it's a lost art form. There's a novelty aspect where it gets overlooked, but to me there's another side where it is a high art form, a vocal style that requires almost a gift and certainly lots of practice. I'm still learning how to yodel and I still get excited when I find an old yodeler I've never heard of before.
It really started for me in the mid-'80s, I was living in southern California, had a band going down there, and one night we were playing at Madame Wong's, an old rock club. It was tough being in a band down in L.A.; you had to do something a little different to get people's attention because they've seen everything. So I whipped out a yodel song and, bam, got everybody's attention. By the end of the song, everybody had their focus up on the stage.
At that point I understood the power of the yodel. For me it worked great to get people's attention.
That being said, obviously, we do more than yodel. That's just one of the things I do with our music, it ties in with the cowboy songs we do.
Pun intended, you're hardly a one-trick pony. Tell me about your love for horses and how that influences you.
I'm infatuated with the horse and have been since I was a kid. My dad was one of the first to bring registered American quarter horses up into this part of the country. He and his brother, Duke, they were horse breeders and enthusiasts, they used them for rodeo and ranching. I grew up around them and took for granted what good horses they were.
When I moved to L.A. in the '80s, I obviously couldn't keep a horse as a starving musician, so I got away from them for a period of about 10 or 15 years. When I got back, moved out of L.A. and got back up to the Northwest, the first thing I did was get a couple of horses to ride. It's just taken off from there.
I love horses because it gives me something to focus on besides the music, and cutting horses is what I've focused on. They're kind of a time-intensive horse sport to be involved in, you don't just go cut with a couple of practices a month. So it's just an excuse to be on a horse a large amount of time.
To me, the horses complement the music and vice versa. My success has allowed me to own some pretty nice horses and a nice facility to train them. It's a very symbiotic relationship.
I guess the whole focus of my music is this Western lifestyle. I know a lot of people who listen to our music care a lot about that, too. We're in a pretty special place. There's this common thread with all of us, whether you work in a bank in downtown Missoula or ranch up on the Blackfeet Reservation, there's this connection to the land. I sing directly toward that, to the landscape and the connections we have with it; and the audience that comes to our shows, they're into it. It's amazing to see that diversity of our audience and to share the common interest we have.
Read more of this interview at NickellBag.com.
Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, firstname.lastname@example.org.