Wylie Gustafson is a Los Angeles-based country singer, but he can't be accused of being "All Hat, No Cattle"--a charge he levels at a fictional, Cadillac-driving urban cowboy in his song of that title.
Although not a cattle owner, Gustafson was raised on a Montana ranch by a country-singing daddy. That fact, however, hasn't bought him much respect from the country-music establishment.
"Generally, anybody who's not from Nashville has a really hard time of it trying to break into that small little clique," says Gustafson, 31, who leads his band Wylie & the Wild West Show tonight in a benefit at Knott's Berry Farm.
His Van Nuys address isn't the only problem. "Most country music today is more pop-oriented. We have more of an edge. We don't hire Nashville musicians on our sessions; we write most of our own songs. . . . We do things differently," Gustafson says.
"I'm sure we probably don't appeal to a lot of the major labels."
The wry, rock-influenced singer and songwriter has managed to get some attention this year, but not through the traditional outlets. In January, he sent a video of the tune "This Time" to CMT, a country-music equivalent of MTV, and the cable channel put it into light rotation. It caught on quickly with viewers--at one time, it was the second-most requested video on the network--and also began to get play on The Nashville Network, another country cable channel.
While Gustafson appreciates the attention, he acknowledges one little hitch--he had no record to sell when the video took off. Signed to Santa Monica-based independent label Cross Three Records, Gustafson quickly issued a single of "This Time" to radio stations and has since released a limited-run album-length cassette to temporarily satisfy the demand for product. His debut album on Cross Three is not due in the stores until November.
"I just sent the video to them to see if they had any interest in independent artists," says Gustafson, who was caught off guard by the quick response. A second video, a quirky but quickly produced performance clip of "The Yodeling Fool," has also picked up some air time.
"We're pretty much a video band right now, without the product in the stores," Gustafson says.
Gustafson was in a Montana roots rock band called the Talk when he decided to make the move to Los Angeles in 1986. He spent a couple of years toiling in the local rock scene before deciding to branch out into country. His idea was to combine a country classicism, drawn from such masters as Jimmie Rodgers, with the melodic pop sense and off-center lyrical viewpoint of some of his contemporary favorites, including Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe.
It is proving a natural fit. The singer brings his distinctive baritone to sharply observed tales of romantic regret ("2 Cups of Coffee," "Hello Heartache") and country-tinged witticisms ("The Yodeling Fool," which proves Gustafson really can yodel). With his horn-rimmed glasses and unruly shock of hair, the bass-playing Gustafson looks a bit like Buddy Holly, only fluffier. He's backed by a tight, hard-edged band that includes guitarist Will Ray, Gustafson's frequent songwriting partner.
Gustafson met his band mates while appearing at Ronnie Mack's weekly Barn Dance at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, where they became regulars. Last year, Wylie & the Wild West Show took the top prize in the Southern California regional finals of the Marlboro Music Talent Roundup in Anaheim.
While the band didn't end up winning the finals in Nashville, it did get its first exposure to the big country labels (but no contract offers). Late last year, Gustafson was ready to relocate to the country-music capital but was unable to sell his Van Nuys home in the soft real-estate market and decided to put off the move indefinitely.
Gustafson went back to Nashville a few months ago, to capitalize on the success of the videos and appear on some country music TV programs, and he plans another assault on Music City once the new album is released.
In the meantime, he draws strength from the examples set by other artists he admires who have succeeded despite varying degrees of resistance from the country-music establishment: Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, Dwight Yoakam and Rosie Flores, among others.
Rock fans are one source of success that Gustafson hopes to capture.
"I think the rock audience is reaching for something a little more traditional . . . something they can relate to a little bit better than a lot of the stuff that's coming out," he says. "I think there's a big market out there for a band that can blend country and rock the way Jerry Lee Lewis did in the '50s, the way Carl Perkins did."
* Wylie & the Wild West Show will perform at 8 p.m. as part of Hollywood Hoedown, an all-day event that features Western-themed entertainment and activities at Knott's Berry Farm Gold Rush Camp, 8039 Beach Blvd. in Buena Park. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and will benefit Florence Crittenton Services of Orange County. Admission: $50 for adults, $25 for children 3 to 11 (lunch and admission to the theme park are included). (714) 680-8200.