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Yodeling Cowboy: Profile of One of America's Finest Cowboy Singers

  • Suli Yi

One of the classic images of America is that of the cowboy, a rugged individual living close to the land. Suli Yi of VOA’s Mandarin service has the story of a modern-day cowboy whose talents have taken him far beyond his home on the range. Paul Miller narrates.

The town of Dusty sits in the mountains of the western state of Washington, near Idaho. There are all of 11 people living here. They include Wylie Gustafson and his wife Kimberly. Wylie is a rancher, a country singer, and America’s most famous yodeler. It’s a vocal technique that comes in handy on a cattle ranch. Wylie says about yodeling, “To me yodeling is an art form and it’s a lost art form. So I’m trying to revive the lost art of yodeling.”

Wylie has performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, the heart of country music, 45 times. He’s produced nine albums of singing and yodeling - but his most famous yodel was not for a record album.

“In 1996 I was contacted by a small company by the name of Yahoo," he says. "They were a startup Internet Company that not many people knew of, and they wanted to do a commercial. They wanted a yodel that would represent the carefree attitude of their company. I was asked to come in the studio and yodel. They wanted a yodel so I came up with three notes that sound like this ’Yahoo’.”

That was worth a half a million dollars Wylie and Kimberly used to build an indoor training field for their cutting horses, the specially-trained animals that separate some cattle from the rest of the herd. He remarks on his star, “Whiskey are you a star? Yes, yes you are a star. This horse here is my cutting horse. He’s won over $15,000 in show money. He’s a very good, he’s one of the top cutting horses in the northwest. In cutting, you go into a herd of cattle. You take one cow away from the herd and since cows are a herd animal, that one cow wants to move back to the herd, but you position your horse between that one cattle and the rest of the herd, drop your reigns and the horse keeps the other cow away from the herd.”

And the horse is a cowboy’s most important piece of equipment. Wylie has a dozen horses, 20 head of cattle, and a dozen bison as well. When speaking about his songs he says, “My songs come from my daily life here on the ranch. Whether it is roping or cutting, or just riding a horse on a peaceful morning, with all my troubles behind me.” His wife Kimberly says,
“I help keep his ranch running as smooth as possible so that he can continue singing. We’re happy together. This happiness helps him to create music.”

Wylie’s fans say his music captures the essence of cowboy life: its honesty, its genuineness, and the fun and the freedom. And there are also the clothes, and the yodeling.