Singer-songwriter Forest VanTuyl, aka An American Forest, hesitates to be referred to as a cowboy songwriter. Aspiring cowboy singer is more his speed, since he doesn’t feel he’s earned the right or the experience to be referred to as a genuine cowboy.
In spite of that, VanTuyl of Enterprise has a résumé of day jobs that make any cattleman-hat-fashioning, Nashville-country-music-machine-produced artist look about as authentic as an American flag manufactured in China.
A self-taught guitarist originally from Chehalis, Washington, Forest developed an appreciation for Bob Dylan as a teenager, which led to him exploring other giants of modern folk such as Woody Guthrie, Ian Tyson and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. In 2013, while living in Seattle and working on tugboats, VanTuyl read “All The Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy. The book lit a fire under him to work with horses, which led him to the inland Northwest.
A brief stint in New Mexico inspired the songs behind his most recent album “Rosas y Mesteños.” To record that album Forest moved to Enterprise to work with his friend Bart Budwig at the OK Theater. After four months of sleeping on Budwig’s couch and hammering away at the record, VanTuyl found his dream job as an apprentice for a packing outfit. VanTuyl starting taking trips up into the mountains and Hells Canyon servicing hunting trips.
“I have so little experience I keep trying to write from my own experiences,” says VanTuyl. “I’m not trying to write the new ‘Goodbye Old Paint’ or ‘Strawberry Roan’ or anything like that really. It’s more about having that sense of nature and the natural world. The world is better for me when I’m in the wilderness and on a horse. There’s a lot of love songs and heartbreak songs but I want it all to be through the lens of learning about horses or being on a horse or mule in the mountain.”
Indeed, spending long days in the wilderness on horseback has provided Forest a wealth of experiences to draw from.
“There’s this one day I was riding down in Hells Canyon,” Forest recalls. “The sun was going down and we were riding from Freezeout Trailhead up to Freezeout Saddle and it’s switchback after switchback going right up the side of the canyon. It was right while the sun was setting in such a way that we could watch it set from one switchback and then move up two or three more switchbacks where we’d be higher in elevation so the sun would be back up and we’d watch it set again. We’d keep doing that all the way up. That’s the kind of stuff that’s hard to not write a song about.”
VanTuyl’s lyrics are less in line with cowboy storytellers and more with Zen hermit philosophers like Stonehouse and contemporary Pacific Northwest poets like Gary Snyder. For example, the song behind his recently released music video “Burnin’ Starlight” is rich in imagery revolving around a midnight horseback ride. It provides the perfect backdrop to revel in the ecstasy of nature and the longing to be home.
This past winter VanTuyl spent a month in Sonora, Mexico, doing a work trade that involved, “riding Mexican ponies, leading dude rides, and eating beans.” The experience became a writer’s retreat of sorts that broke him out of a yearlong writer’s block.
“It was a super isolated ranch. I was the only person who played music. Oddly enough while I was down there I wrote more about Oregon than I did about Mexico. I write about stuff that’s not immediately in front of me.”
The draw of his adopted home of the Wallowas proved strong for VanTuyl.
“I knew that this country was supposed to be my home; the Wallowa County area, these mountains, these canyons. Being down there really reinforced that and made me miss it enough that I was trying to write myself back here. A lot of songs I wrote down there are about getting a winter job in the canyons and spending the summer out on the Minam.”
An American Forest performs at The Gathering Place at Bellinger’s, 1823 S Highway 395, Hermiston, on June 1 at 5:30 p.m.
James Dean Kindle is the East Oregonian’s entertainment columnist, the executive director of the Oregon East Symphony and a Pendleton musician. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.