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Nashville Scene The Real Deal

Two country singers who live the life they sing

By Michael McCall

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  On the cover of the new Wylie & the Wild West album, Ridin' the Hi-Line, singer Wylie Gustafson stands on a sunlit prairie, his head tilted back under the sharply curled brim of a tan cowboy hat. His left hand holds the reigns of a chestnut thoroughbred, and his right hand is cocked on his hip with his fingers touching the top of a pair of brown leather chaps. He's wearing a Western shirt, blue jeans, an enormous brass belt buckle, and a scarf tied cowboy-style around his neck.

If a Nashville-based country singer went to such lengths for a photo session, he'd be a laughingstock. It's one thing to put on a Stetson for the camera and the stage; it's another thing altogether to fake the whole cowboy fantasy for a publicity shoot. Only for Gustafson, this ain't no costume. A true cowhand who owns a working ranch in the Big Sky country of eastern Washington, Gustafson is a real-life cowboy who happens to be one of the most expressive country-and-Western vocalists around. As his entertaining new collection proves, Wylie and his crack Wild West band are just as authentic when it comes to music.

Gustafson's songs, most of them originals, are worlds away from the sensitive ballads and slick country-pop that fills country radio these days. Buoyantly upbeat, he concentrates on yippee-ki-yo-ki-ya Western barroom music. More energized than fellow Western singers Michael Martin Murphey or Don Edwards, Wylie & the Wild West combine shuffles, two-steppers, waltzes, and lightly swinging rhythms to create an album as fun as riding a galloping horse and as American as a field of wheat.

The "hi-line" of the album's title is another name for the wide-open country of northern Montana and northeast Washington, where Gustafson was raised. He also spent part of the '80s in Los Angeles, playing clubs like the Palomino, and the driving country rhythms and resonant guitars typical of artists like Dwight Yoakam and Rosie Flores ring through the music of Wylie & the Wild West.

But it's the cowboy flavor that sets Wylie's music apart. For one thing, he yodels--indeed, he's an unrepentant, unrestrained yodeler whose work ranks with that of Don Walser and Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky. His songwriting shows the influence of Marty Robbins as well as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, and the Sons of the Pioneers. In concert, his cover songs include "Cattle Call," "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "Jingle Jangle Jingle," and a couple of remakes from his new album, a sprightly "Buffalo Gals" and a loping version of "Doggone Cowboy," a Joe Babcock song made famous by Robbins.

While his songs have a certain pie-eyed romanticism to them--as indicated by such gee-whiz titles as "Yodeling Cowhand," "Down the Trail," "Ol' Coyote," and "Ridin' Rockin' Rollin' "--he nonetheless goes beyond the Tin Pan Alley formulas by adding distinctive details from his experience as a rancher and resident of the rural West. After all, he hears coyotes howl most nights when he's home, and when he dedicates a song called "He's a Cowboy" to his father, it's because Dad was a Montana veterinarian who spent his career making ranch calls and tending to sick livestock.

That said, Gustafson's authenticity and his feel for his material wouldn't mean manure if it weren't for his sweet-toned baritone and the sheer joy he instills in his performances. He also benefits from an outstanding band, especially guitarist Ray Doyle and steel player Duane Becker, both of whom master the ringing, clear-note twang identified with the best country bands of the '40s and '50s. For fans sick of the slick, Middle American pop that fills country radio these days, Wylie & the Wild West are like a fresh, cool blast rolling in from the range.

Singer Ed Burleson carries the same stamp of authenticity as Gustafson and a similar born-to-it talent for real country music. A sixth-generation Texan and former rodeo competitor, Burleson represents much of what down-home Lone Star country music should be. As revealed on his debut album My Perfect World--the first release on the late Doug Sahm's Tornado Records--his laid-back, barroom country tunes have more in common with George Strait or Clint Black's Killin' Time than with fellow Texas honky-tonkers Dale Watson and the Derailers.

Watson and the Derailers, for instance, draw heavily on the Bakersfield sound, and Watson's songs are riddled with references to truckers and grease monkeys. Burleson is more of a slow-drawling, close-cropped, thank-you-ma'am cowboy type, with starched jeans, pressed dress shirts, and molded Western hats--like a lot of Nashville singers these days.

But Burleson is not a careful revivalist. Instead, like Strait, he's that rare artist who uses traditional music forms to speak about who he is and what matters to him in an entertaining, earthy manner. For example, his song "Wide Open Spaces" laments the loss of undeveloped countryside, and when he puts down Nashville in "Going Home to Texas," it's with a gentler, more joyous feel than, say, Watson's "Nashville Rash."

Although Burleson is a distinctive songwriter, My Perfect World features a few choice songs written by others, including a couple of Jim Lauderdale tunes, a couple of honky-tonkers by his mentor Doug Sahm, and another by his producer, Lone Star club favorite Clay Blaker. However, the most telling songs on the album are the tender weepers written by Burleson. In the title track, his heart bursts as his wife suggests they married too young. In "Dreamworld," he silently observes his wife putting on a party dress and preparing to spend yet another night in bars without him. And in the sweet "No Closing Time," he wishes a night on the town would never end--not because he wants to keep partying, but because he doesn't want to stop dancing in the arms of the woman he loves.

Burleson has quickly made a name for himself in Texas, where he's been championed as a real-deal country singer. He deserves such praise--as well as the attention of Nashville, which would benefit greatly from bringing back the kind of genuine sentiment and naturalness that Burleson instills in his music.

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