Cool to be a Cowboy: Wahlert weathers storms to return to the national stage
For Austin Wahlert, 2021 culminated in debuting his newest song and video, Back When They Bucked on Springs, in front of a sold-out Wrangler National Finals Rodeo crowd at the Thomas and Mack and during the broadcast on the Cowboy Channel. The video, which is still making the rounds on social media, is a whirlwind who’s-who of rodeo with footage from major rodeos, the most well-known stock contractors in the country, and many of the rodeo athletes who have dominated the sport and made their marks over the past several decades.
Wahlert, who grew up near Eaton, Colo., penned a song several years ago titled “Las Vegas Gold” that he performed during the 10th round of the WNFR in 2014. That opened the door to a partnership with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association that made this go-round easier. His newest single, Back When They Bucked on Springs and it’s accompanying music video are filled with classic television moments from rodeos and the WNFR, as well as footage from Wahlert and his lifelong friends.
“My goal was to show how cool it is to be a cowboy,” he said. “We all played cowboy growing up, and it’s a great way to raise your kids and, if nothing else, I hope it brings the generations together and gives them all something to talk about and take an interest in.”
Wahlert met and began working with the Cowboy Channel and owner Patrick Gottsch through the production of Wahlert’s television show, Down Payment on a Dream.” Through his filming, he was able to welcome 30-year WNFR broadcasting veteran Jeff Medders as a guest on the show and later, a familiar face in the music video. When it was time to gather video and photos, he said the PRCA “gave him the keys to the kingdom” and allowed him to use his choice of the vast media collection from years of televised rodeos. The video even includes home video of Stetson, Ryder and Rusty Wright playing on the bucking barrel as kids.
To add to the notable moments of film featuring rodeo legends, he also filmed his own children and others remaking famous rodeo moments, which he said has been an incredibly popular portion of the video.
IN THE BEGINNING
Wahlert’s music career began in high school. His grandfather, who was a Korean War veteran and a musician himself, split the cost of a guitar with Wahlert and tempted him to learn how to play with the promise of leaving to him a 1952 arch top Epiphone guitar. Wahlert didn’t need much in the way of convincing to learn and so learn he did.
“He taught me then and as soon as I learned a chord on my guitar, I started writing,” he said. “I put out my first record in Nashville in 2010 and so I’ve done this professionally for about a decade, but I’ve been at it a long time.”
Wahlert grew up in Colorado competing in rodeos and was surrounded by friends who did the same, many who went on to successful professional rodeo careers.
“I didn’t ride that good, but I was always around the best,” he said. “When I broke my back the second time in college in Texas rodeoing for Odessa (College), I was playing all over Texas after the college rodeos.”
The literal break led him to Nashville. Just as he had spent time with the best competitors during his rodeo years, he wanted to be around the best in country music. To do so, he sought out excellent musicians and set out to record at Legend Studios.
Looking back over a decade as a recording artist, he said his fans have certainly watched him grow and mature as an artist. That experience, he said, doesn’t happen as often as it once did, but it allows fans to learn who an artist is and to hear his or her perspective through lyrics.
Songwriting, he said, is something he looks at not only as a way to communicate his unique perspective, but also something he can leave of himself for his kids. That message has translated into success on the radio, particularly overseas in Australia, but also with underground country music fans who appreciate singer songwriters who are closer to the ranch and rural America than others.
“If it’s good music, we go there first,” he said. “You can’t really hide when you get in the studio with a group of A list studio musicians. Those are the guys that have helped me cut my records. Between them, they have about 180 million sold on the records they’ve played on.”
Just as all boats rise on a high tide, he said Nashville is the place where maybe even the gas station attendant is the best singer and songwriter in their hometown. That makes for a rich community of talented co-writers when it’s time to write songs. Always conscious of surrounding himself with the elite studio musicians, he said he does the same with songwriters, and tries to reach out to songwriters who have hits that span numerous decades. They have earned the right to be selective when deciding which artists to work with, he said, so he tries to bring his best ideas to the table.
“It’s not just songwriting I want to learn from them, it’s longevity in the business,” he said.
Wynn Varble, a songwriter with some serious credits to his name including “Waiting on a Woman” for Brad Paisley, once told Wahlert that Nashville is a 10-year town. Wahlert said it takes that long to find the co-writers that are a successful fit, but songwriting itself is humbling in the blink of an eye. Living and experiencing, he said, be it touring, playing with his kids, or working on the family ranch, all add to his bank of song ideas.
In 2020 when appearances and concerts were cancelled and stage lights fell dark, the timing aligned with Wahlert’s family needing him the most.
“Those things will rock your world,” he said. “I’ve always looked at it that music is something I love and love to do, but it’s helped me through some of the worst times in my life. It’s like a friend that will help you through it. I don’t go to therapy, but music therapy is my thing.”
Wahlert’s recent WNFR appearance was not only a return to live shows, but a triumph through personal tragedies as well. In the past 18 months, Wahlert and his wife, Justine, have been battling through her diagnosis of Lo- Pressure Hydrocephalus, or early onset dimentia. It has, he said, proven her status as a warrior, fighting through four brain surgeries, a coma, and other challenges that he said at times seemed insurmountable.
He said the brain surgeries to place shunts were prompted by balance problems, memory and cognitive issues as a result of swelling of the ventricles that were crushing her brain against her skull. Hydrocephalus, he said, is relatively common but low-pressure hydrocephalus is extremely rare and causes rapid brain decay. Her neurosurgeons are hopeful that the surgeries will slow the progression of the disease and preserve the best quality of life.
“We are so thankful that she is recovering and doing amazing things for all she has been through,” he said. “She is training and wants to run a half marathon next year. With the crazy year we had the incredibly generous people at the Feeders and Friends benefit helped us out in more ways than we could ever say. With all that we went through they were a shining example of how small towns can do incredibly big things financially, but also spiritually, they are just good for the soul.”
“Back When They Bucked on Springs” is the first single released from the record that came out of that time. With a title still forthcoming, Wahlert said he’s releasing a single monthly through 2022.
Even though his focus remains on his family and being present to support and help his wife, Wahlert has also been able to release episodes of his television show, which was renewed by the Cowboy Channel with a year long hiatus from filming to allow Wahlert time at home.
Gottsch, he said, is revolutionary for the western lifestyle industry and has been supportive of Wahlert through challenging times.
“He is opening doors for people in our industry that never even existed before and giving opportunities,” he said.
One of those opportunities Wahlert was able to realize was playing RFD-TV’s The American at the AT&T Stadium. He said it was a life changing goal he didn’t even have on his radar and one of many opportunities long overdue in the industry.
“It’s just like how I grew up on the ranch here,” he said. “(Gottsch) isn’t going to hand you anything, but he provides opportunity and if you’re willing to go work hard and put in the investment, he’ll make it happen.”
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