A Montana Cowboy’s Trip to Inner Mongolia
by Wylie Gustafson
In July 2013, my telephone rang with the southern-tinged voice of Nick Spitzer on the line. Nick is a long-time music lover and professor of American studies and anthropology at Tulane University. He is also the host for his long standing NPR program “American Routes” which has highlighted American roots music that routinely gets overlooked by corporate radio. He invited my four-piece music combo, “Wylie & the Wild West,” for a “cultural diplomacy” tour to Inner Mongolia, Shenyang, and Beijing, China. We are known for our high-kicking, cowboyish brand of traditional country music and yodeling. I’ve always liked to think my five-generation Montana ranching background adds a sense of authenticity to what we do. Nick put together the tour which was co-sponsored by the US Embassy in Beijing. In the last few years it seems that the American State Department has realized the power of American music to win the hearts of the world. East is East and West is West but yodeling just might help bring them together!
On a fast plane to China
I traded the seat of my cutting horse for a ride on a roaring jumbo jet and we all arrived in Hohhot Inner Mongolia on September 5, 2013, after a meandering 22-hour flight. The economically robust industrial city of Hohhot is just south of Mongolia proper. It is a sprawling city of two million souls earnestly trying to catch up with the 21st century. We were slated to perform daily to a crowd of 1,000 people for a three-day cultural music festival, which included three other international musical groups. The curious and enthusiastic crowd of mostly young folks showed their appreciation for the yodeling and simple guitar-based sound of our group. Curiously, we have found that whenever we travel to an international destination that the closer to Elvis you can sound… the better the response. The familiar echoes of Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash in our rhythms excited the crowd, and they showed their appreciation for our American music with continuous applause and shouts of encouragement. After every performance, our shy 22-year old guitar slinger Sam was surrounded by a throng of women seeking autographs and photo ops. Sam was pleasantly surprised to be told that he looked like film star Keanu Reeves.
The amount of construction going on in China was astounding. In every direction the skyline is filled with the looming silhouettes of cranes erecting skyscrapers and condos. China is a booming supernova economy, and the promise of the fast growing infrastructure was palpable everywhere we went. Everyone seemed to have access to cell phone, a car, and a fast food joint. Apparently, the American dream has slipped its moors and slowly drifted to the shores of China. Every city we played there seemed to be a bit of Silicon Valley, Fifth Avenue, and Memphis splashed up on flashing LED billboards.
Ride Cowboy, Ride
I, the yodeling horseman from Montana, wanted to get out of the rat race for a bit to get a close-up look at the infamous little ponies that old Genghis Khan used. The festival organizers in Hohhot had pre-arranged a horseback ride that was to be topped off by an authentic Inner Mongolian meal for the band and its crew. On our second day in Hohhot we drove three hours out of the city through a range of large hills and climbed until we reached a tableland of grass. As we drove upward, we got a good glimpse of China’s past with its empty and dying little villages... ghost towns of a less tumultuous time. The weeds grew thick next to the old villages’ crumbling walls as China was surging forward with new high-rise cities to house its inhabitants. The dichotomy of the old versus the new blurred as our van full of band members and a half-dozen Hohhot hosts headed out to find the herds of tougher-than-backhoe-bucket ponies that grazed on the great plains of Inner Mongolia.
As we reached the prairielands, the famous Mongolian horses started dotting the pastures of bunchgrass. It had the familiar open feel of the high plains of Montana. I was anxious to inspect the tough little horse. I was certain that my cutting horses back home carried a few of the genes that made these ponies so hardy and tenacious. We passed small bands of dude strings tied to picket lines to fulfill the new tourist trade of city folks wanting to get out of the cities. The irony of this new career for the noble steed appeared in the gelding’s sour countenance as he stood tied in mute defiance of his new lot in life. The grassland on the edge of civilization had a reservation feel to it as these ancient clans confidently balanced themselves on the precipice of two very different worlds. One by one we threw our legs over the cranky little equids. The wonderful creatures were throwbacks to a different era: half-donkey, half- Przewalski, half-thoroughbred type of horses that added up to a horse and a half for their diminutive size.
We took a two-mile trail ride up to a colorful prayer hut whose strips of cloths danced in the prairie winds, then trotted back down for a five-course meal of mutton, cheese curds, and stuff you didn’t want to ask too much about. We hoisted a toast with vodka-like mare’s milk wine and headed back to the city for our concert. We were a bit less theatrical that evening because of our full bellies.
On the last night of the Hohhot festival our tour manager Josh Kohn arranged for me to yodel with a female Tuvan throat singer who joined me onstage for an improvised slow yodel. It was a quite an unexpected convergence of musical styles but somehow it worked. Now I can cross “yodeling with a Tuvan throat singer” off my bucket list.
Take me back to Tulsa
The tour continued into the cities of Shenyang and Beijing where we played for a contemporary music college, a classic music college, a vocational school for students who came from economically challenged families, and a colorful museum of modern history. We topped off the 10-day tour performing for an induction party for a new senior consulate for the US State Department in Beijing. The US State Department graciously played an important part in helping put the tour together with their generous donation of ground travel and accommodations while we were in Beijing.
This was the third international cultural diplomacy tour that the band has done. We performed in Argentina in 2007 and Russia in 2012. It seems to me to be an effective and positive way to break down the barriers between cultures. As I mature as an artist, I continued to be humbled by the power of music. I have experienced firsthand how it can soften hearts and put smiles on the faces of our listeners. It is indeed one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind!