Wylie Gustafson left his Montana home with dreams of making it big in country music. That's when his road to success took an odd turn.
Having hit a dead-end playing the Northwest club circuit, the 30-year-old singer headed south and ended up in the San Fernando Valley, which isn't exactly the home of country-Western. But he began appearing in Ronnie Mack's weekly Barn Dance at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, met some other players and formed a group.
Last week, Wylie & the Wild West Show beat out eight other Southern California bands to win the semifinals of a national contest called the Marlboro Music Talent Roundup. The four-piece band will next travel to Nashville for the Nov. 16 finals.
Gustafson and his cohorts got $7,500 for winning the regional round. They are far more excited about visiting the hometown of the Grand Ole Opry, the stomping grounds of Minnie Pearl, the Mecca of Twang.
"The most important thing is that plane ticket to Nashville," Gustafson said. "That will give us a chance to be seen. Maybe we'll get some attention from the music industry."
The annual Marlboro contest is restricted to performers who don't have major-label record contracts. The national winner gets $30,000 and 40 hours of recording time in a Nashville studio with producer and engineer Barry Beckett, who has worked with Bob Dylan, Hank Williams Jr. and others.
And if the Valley seems like a wide detour on the way to potential country stardom, don't tell Gustafson. The lanky lead singer said he and his band have benefited greatly from the stage experience they've gained at Mack's Tuesday night country bills.
"I can't say enough good things about Ronnie Mack," Gustafson said. "He's made a home for a lot of country bands. It gives a place for bands to network, to see what other bands are doing."
Wylie & the Wild West Show plays wry songs that range from razor-edged cow-punk to traditional Western yodeling. Thrown into the mix is a hint of Dwight Yoakum and some rock-tinged muscle that marks so many Southern California country bands.
"He's got an edge to his music that makes it appealing to young kids," Ronnie Mack said. "But it's traditional enough so that he can appeal to the mainstream."
The songs include a witty account of post-breakup regret titled "Two Cups of Coffee and Three Cigarettes," and a stinging jab at urban cowboys, "All Hat (and No Cattle)."
Gustafson fronts this act wearing his horn-rimmed glasses and electroshock-treatment hair--sort of Elvis Costello meets Lyle Lovett. He says that living so close to Hollywood has taught him that looking good on stage is part of the battle.
With 10 other bands in the national finals, Gustafson isn't yet counting the first-place money. But Nashville, he said, is a big step up from North Hollywood.
"We're going to try to milk this for all it's worth," he said.