Yonder, yonder, yonder. It’s a word you don’t hear much these days except in the poetry of cowboys or from the Shakespearean stage. Forrest Van Tuyl, who performs as An American Forrest, is a young cowboy poet and horse wrangler from northeastern Oregon who slings archaic lingo around like flapjacks. Yonder shows up a lot on this deeply country, deeply Western and deeply personal recording.
Forrest recently completed a solo nationwide tour in support of Margo Cilker & Field Heat, and will be out on tour with a full band this summer. Fans of Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, James McMurtry, and Todd Snider ought to love this fellow, as well as fans of cowboy poetry by the likes of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Ian Tyson, with whom he shared a festival bill as a featured performer at the 2019 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
He truly is a buckaroo, spending six months of the year running a string of packhorses in the wilderness for hunters and other back-country aficionados. When he’s not doing that, he’s taking part in the burgeoning singer-songwriter scene around Enterprise, Oregon, an artsy community nestled in the midst of the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon.
Here’s the video he submitted to National Public Radio’s “Tiny Desk Video” contest this year, a live performance for a herd of cattle of his song “Yonder, My Love,” with lyrics that nod to Shakespeare and a chorus that quotes Rainer Maria Rilke.
Van Tuyl’s lyrics are a snappy blend of rugged but self-deprecating cowboy poetry and self-aware but heartfelt indie-Americana. He quotes from Li Bai, Rilke and Shakespeare as easily as from Townes Van Zandt, Gillian Welch, and John Prine. Not to mention Yogi Berra. And the arrangements bring a Western feel to what might otherwise pass as indie folk, Barry Walker Jr.’s nearly ubiquitous pedal steel making sure you know this is country.
There are too many highlights to mention here. My early favorite song is “Yonder Mountain,” a stripped-down affair both lyrically and musically in which he rhapsodizes about working out amidst the natural world. In addition to his mountainous surroundings, its lyrics are inspired by “Buddhist hermit poetry,” as he says in the liner notes: “Ya work a horse in that mornin’ light like it’s a form of prayer and God is the country & I have been there.” The opening two tracks also are a one-two punch of cow-puncher goodness, starting dark and ending lighter. “Sam’s House” is a slow dark ballad chockful of horse-related metaphor, Forrest’s mind meandering through thoughts of the end of a love affair, getting bad news from afar, and ambivalence about your homeland. Then “Rawhide” rears up out of the gate, an exhuberant boot-scooting shuffle of a love song even more packed with playful metaphor. “Burnin’ Starlight,” too, which comes about midway through the playlist, is another upbeat number celebrating the joys of life in the open, spinning and slipping with wordplay like a wet-behind-the-ears calf gamboling on a sunny spring morning.
O Bronder was recorded at the studio of Mike Coykendall, one of Portland’s go-to producers and session players, with musicians from both Portland and the Wallowa country. It’s great to see some cross-pollination going on between those two scenes, from which only good things can come. Like this solid country-western album from An American Forrest.
(OK Records, 2019)