Album Review – Wylie & The Wild West’s “Bunchgrass”

photo: Mark LaRowe

Sometimes you stumble upon a great song, album, or artist, and boom, you have some tasty musical morsel to enjoy henceforth. Or sometimes you fall so far down a musical rabbit hole, an entire new world of music unfolds right there in front of you, with decades of material to go back and listen through, and a whole career’s worth of catching up to do. This is the experience of delving into the life and career of Montana’s Wylie Gustafson and his band Wylie & The Wild West.

Maybe you recognize one or both of these names, or more likely you don’t. You certainly have heard Wylie Gustafson before though. Among other famous exploits, he was the guy that sang the ubiquitous yodeling “Yahoooo!” line for the online service that was ever-present in society for the better part of a decade. He’s also appeared as a guest of the Grand Ole Opry some 50 times among other notable exploits.

But yodeling cowboys from Montana aren’t exactly the stuff of popular culture fame, or even of notoriety in today’s country music diet. Yet with the way Western music, cowboys, and authenticity are making their way back in country music diet through things like the Yellowstone series and Colter Wall’s curious popularity, Wylie & The Wild West are ripe for rediscovery.

The new album Bunchgrass is as good of a starting point as any. Don’t go assuming this is some Western take on bluegrass from the title. Wylie is likely referring to the tufts of tussock grass that grow out of the Western prairie as opposed to making a pun. What you do get on the record is this artist’s signature mix of cowboy poetry and yodeling, songs of the Western puncher, and straight up classic country.

Brilliantly composed with minimalist instrumentation that carefully chooses each tasty note and the exact right tone and instrument to perform it with, the wide open space is respected on Bunchgrass just like it is in the West. With the wide variety of styles that Wylie works in, you may find the selections on this album hit or miss. But the ones that hit will hit you hard. Perhaps the best place to start is with the honky tonk tracks: the punchy and principled “Straight Up Country Music” that veers into the protest realm, and the boot-stomping “Birch Creek.”

For those looking for more Western flavor, try Wylie Gustafson originals “Cowboy Soliloquy” or “Hiline Waltz.” There are a couple of quality cover songs that made the cut too, including Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness,” and John Hartford’s “In Tall Buildings.” But no matter what style Wylie’s singing in or who wrote the song, it’s his lived-in barrel-chested Western baritone that really sells you on whatever it is.

Following the Western music adage that to sing it, you first have to live it, Wylie Gustafson puts the real world experience of working his family’s 4th generation Cross Three Quarter Horse Ranch outside of Conrad, Montana into his music. When he’s not writing or playing, Wylie’s raising cow horses. He grew up as a team roper, and was a Top 10 NCHA Western National Finals competitor in 2005 and 2008. His dad R.W. “Rib” Gustafson was also a cowboy singer, rancher, veterinarian, and writer of Western experiences. Few have as storied of a resume to sing cowboy music as Wylie.

This all comes into play when Gustafson sings about horses and Western landscapes, but even when he chooses to sing something completely out of this wheelhouse like the ballad “Young and Beautiful” once made big by Elvis, Gustafson really exposes himself as a generational singer that can perform just about anything, and does.

The legacy of Wylie Gustafson and his band Wylie & The Wild West stretches over three decades into the past, and includes some quarter of a hundred albums. Since he’s always had to balance his musical pursuits with his obligations back in Montana, it’s been difficult for Wylie and his band’s legacy to punch through to a wider audience, even though he’s enjoyed some glimmers of fame, and support from festivals over the years who recognize him as the real deal.

But with the way Western music is rising in popularity, it seems about time that Wylie and the Wild West benefit from a retrospective assessment. Though there are plenty of albums in the catalog to choose from, and this one does have some soft spots, Bunchgrass is good of a place to start with that reassessment, and fills the heart with the wholesomeness of the Cowboy and Western experience.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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