Young musicians who stay true their Western roots.
BY CLAIRE CELLA
The definitions of “root” are many, and include to enter the earth, to become established, to begin to grow, or to search and rummage. Synonymous with “source” and “origin,” the word serves as a metaphor for the young careers of a group of American roots musicians in the Northern Rockies: Kalyn Beasley; Alysia Kraft of Whippoorwill; and Dusty Nichols and Bo Elledge of Canyon Kids.
In the process of coming-of-age, they all spent time rummaging through memories and early influences, new hopes and old fears, to form a sense of self and original sound in an increasingly dynamic, and difficult, music industry. An industry, according to Skip Anderson, that is also trying to answer the question: What do we do with this music?
Anderson is an award-winning journalist who has covered music, and specifically roots music, for nearly two decades in Nashville, Tennessee, and now, from Bozeman, Montana. He describes the genre as anchored by strong songwriting from genuine artists, independent of major record labels, who make music for the craft of it. Sometimes called Americana, roots music includes the acoustic tradition, but also blues, jazz, rock and country—flavors and sounds that don’t lend themselves to radio play or an easy place to call home, Anderson said.
Although the genre still struggles to find a home in the industry, these musicians don’t seem to—they’ve found success with the support of their communities, and the songs they draw from their surroundings.
“There’s a strong sense of place for people who live in the West. It’s a huge place with a small population—we’re here by choice,” Anderson said.
With a natural beauty and certain quality of life, the Western landscape inspires appreciation and authenticity—and good songwriting, he added. Knowingly or not, these musicians’ songs are rooted in the West and its culture as they write and sing about their lives in small towns, the drama of open spaces and rugged mountains, and the questions of humanity.
Kalyn Beasley was born, raised and currently lives in Cody, Wyoming—population just under 10,000 and known as the “Rodeo Capital of the World.” He grew up steeped in the tradition of cowboys and guitar chords, listening to his father’s country band, After the Rodeo. Beasley became a cowboy himself, competing as a saddle bronc rider throughout high school and into college at Montana State University in Bozeman. It was there that he first picked up a guitar, and also where he learned that he had a story to tell.
Beasley and a few friends formed the country- rock band The Bad Intentions in 2011, and played in bars across Montana and Wyoming. They recorded an album in 2012 and moved to Austin, Texas, to try to “set the world on fire,” Beasley said with a laugh. Despite early success, something about the ease of making music in the Northern Rockies, financially and otherwise, always called them back home. The group disbanded in 2014 to pursue other interests, and Beasley moved back to Cody to manage a cattle ranch and write songs again.
“I think it’s much easier to make music in a place like Cody than in Austin,” he said. “Being disconnected from my constituency, from the people I relate to and care about,
that was hard.”
He landed his first show as a solo singer-songwriter in 2014 at Juniper, a wine bar in Cody. No longer concerned with performing “rollicking, high-tempo, Texas-style fiddle-driven songs that get people drinking and dancing in bars,” Beasley instead shows up to sing about his life.
“You go through life, you move, you break up, you mess up—if you’re like me,” he laughed. “I consider myself a nonfiction writer. I don’t try to make up stories that aren’t true. I like keeping people thinking, laughing, smiling, and I’m constantly getting better at that.”
Beasley has played hundreds of shows each year across the West since 2015, and released his first full-length album, Northerner, in 2016. He calls it “Western Americana” because it centers on his experience living in the Northern Rockies. It’s more of a testament to place and culture than a loyalty to sound; it’s an authentic experience that resonates with the people he’s playing to because it speaks to the place he’s playing from.
“I think people can smell bullshit from a mile away,” he said. “If I tried to write about anything other than what I know, I wouldn’t be able to sustain that.
“You can broaden your audience and your reach by being real,” he added. “And if I take a step back, I realize this is a lot of people’s dreams.”
ALYSIA KRAFT of Whippoorwill
Alysia Kraft was born in Encampment, Wyoming—a town 20 times smaller than Cody, but of a beauty “that most people don’t understand,” she said. Kraft grew up riding around in her father’s truck on their cattle ranch, listening to ‘90s country on the radio. She thinks this early experience infiltrates her music as part of Whippoorwill, the folk-rock trio she formed with Staci Foster and Tobias Bank in 2016.
Prior to Whippoorwill, Kraft had been the fierce and soulful vocalist for the rock n’ roll band, The Patti Fiasco. Their 2013 tour took them to the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, where Kraft met Foster, a local musician. The two shared the weekend at Hill Country swimming holes and learned that they also both shared a yearning to write songs that dripped of Western life, its impenetrable vastness and its surprising beauty.
The encounter forged in Kraft the feeling that she could finally make the music she wanted to, rich with intricate harmonies and deep intimacy. Although the two parted ways after that first fateful meeting, they were soon back together in Fort Collins, Colorado, writing and recording their debut EP, Good to Be Around, as Whippoorwill and hitting pause on work with their other bands.
The stories sung by Whippoorwill are tender and true, and the wide-open enormity of the Western landscape plays a profound role.
“I couldn’t imagine trying to make music anywhere else but in the West,” Kraft said. “Who I am and how I learned to be human and interact with other humans is shaped by where I came from—a cattle ranch in rural Wyoming. Staci and I are both rooted in the places we came from—it’s inevitable we’d be a roots band.”
Dusty Nichols and Bo Elledge say their band was formed on the banks of the Snake River where the two friends worked as photographers, capturing guided raft trips that would float by. While they waited, they wrote songs, using the rapids as the rhythm section, Elledge joked.
The duo’s upcoming 2019 album was inspired almost entirely by that time on the Snake, too. “Or at least, using water as a metaphor for other things,” Elledge said. One song, called “Indecision Ocean” speaks to the uncertain way that water moves, which mimics the decision he and Nichols made, and still question, to stay in Jackson, Wyoming, to try to make music as the Canyon Kids.
Neither of the musicians grew up in the West, but when they moved here as recent college graduates in the late 2000s, they found, as many do, that they couldn’t leave. They’ve been piecing together seasonal jobs and music gigs ever since, humble and grateful for the lifestyle Jackson has afforded them, the songs the place has spawned, and the success the tight-knit creative community has helped them maintain.
“We know there are other major music markets out there: L.A., Austin, Nashville,” Nichols said. “And while those places are appealing, you’re one among thousands. The chances are that if you’re eating in a restaurant, the busser of your table is a better guitar player than you. But here you can get heard, and paid, to be a musician. We’re the ones being contacted.”
The two are often joined by other bandmates to form a full ensemble, complete with a fiddle, drums, a saxophone and three-part harmony. The band sings frequently about living in a small mountain town—both the pros, as well as the cons, like getting stuck in the valley during long, harsh winter snowstorms. As a duo, Nichols and Elledge find their goals are less about making it big or keeping their music within the boundaries of genre and more about keeping the tradition of songwriting alive.
Because of Jackson’s relative isolation, Elledge said it’s hard to feel a part of any broader musical scene, but at the same time he’s aware of the incomparable opportunities this outlying location provides. They’re one of the few folk-rock bands in Wyoming and open for many of the national touring acts that pass through.
“And if you’re doing that enough, and getting paid to make music, I think you’ve made it,” Elledge said.
New York state native Claire Cella never imagined herself living in Wyoming. Growing up, all she knew about the state was that it contained Yellowstone National Park and Jackson Hole—now she lives in Lander and works for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, quite contentedly. She’s not shy to admit she moved to the West for the same reasons everyone else seems to—easy access to the mountains for camping trips, skiing and trail runs.