We’re Western AF

A Wyoming YouTube channel is helping to drive the Americana music resurgence.

mike vanata, left, and brian harrington founded western af to promote americana singers and songwriters
Erik Stenbakken

Mike Vanata walked out the back door of the Big Hollow Food Co-op in Laramie, Wyoming, looking for Canadian country musician Colter Wall.

Vanata and his friend Brian Harrington ran a fledgling YouTube channel where they posted videos of local musicians a few times a year. But the two friends were deadlocked over a name for their business—Vanata wanted to call it Western As Fuck, and Harrington insisted they couldn’t have “fuck” in its name.

Behind the co-op, a brick-lined alleyway dotted with murals connected the store’s parking lot to the back lot of the Cowboy Saloon and Dance Hall, where Wall was scheduled to perform that night. Acclaimed for his resonant baritone, Wall was a fast-rising star in the then-nascent Americana music revival. Asking him to shoot a video was a stretch. Vanata wanted to try anyway.

Harrington still isn’t sure he believes what Vanata says happened next, but he accepts the story with the same blend of skepticism and affection he applies to all his partner’s creative moon shots.

As Vanata recounts it, he exited the co-op’s sliding back door, spotted Wall, and headed over to introduce himself. After a quick spiel about the YouTube channel, Vanata asked Wall if he’d make a video. Wall demurred.

With nothing to lose, Vanata took another shot, blurting out, “The channel’s called Western As Fuck.”

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

Wall softened instantly. “That’s cool,” he said. The bold name sealed the deal. And from then on, the channel would be called Western AF, abbreviated for official purposes.

A few days later, Vanata, Harrington, and their sound engineer Will Ross recorded Wall performing country music songster Eddy Arnold’s “Cowpoke” in an empty airplane hangar outside Casper. In the black-and-white video, Wall stands alone at a microphone, guitar in hand.

Posted September 2, 2019, the video hit 10,000 views in 10 days and topped one million 112 days after its release. Today, it’s been watched eight million times. Seemingly overnight, Western AF’s follower numbers skyrocketed from a couple hundred to thousands.

Western AF now boasts 170,000 YouTube subscribers and 143,000 and 64,300 followers on Instagram and TikTok, respectively. Buoyed by the popularity of Americana artists like Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, and Tyler Childers, Western AF’s intimate, single-song videos from singer-songwriters like Wall, Willi Carlisle, Sierra Ferrell, and Charley Crockett have racked up millions of views on the channel. Vanata and Harrington see themselves as documentarians capturing a new crop of country musicians who use intricate lyrics and traditional stylings to confront 21st-century culture.

“I’m conflicted on if music can really change the world.… But I do think it can have a huge impact on culture and affect a lot of aspects of our life,” says Jonathan Een Newton, head of the independent label Free Dirt Records, which puts out Carlisle’s music. “This kind of stuff just seems to be resonating with a lot of different types of people.”

Wyoming is the country’s least populous state or, as Vanata likes to say, “500,000 people and two escalators.” Situated along the Union Pacific Railroad where it swings through southeastern Wyoming, Laramie snuggles between the Snowy Range Mountains and Laramie Range; the University of Wyoming rounds out the city’s population at just shy of 32,000; and downtown’s frontier-style brick facades evoke a western movie set.

Despite its name and bison logo, Western AF isn’t a “western music” channel. Although Wyoming landscapes feed Harrington and Vanata’s creativity and the state’s DIY ethos liberates them to follow their own rules, they’ll feature musicians from anywhere and often travel to shoot videos, too. For them, “western” is, as frequent collaborator Carlisle says, an attitude.

Western AF released a video for Carlisle’s “Angels” shortly after Wall’s “Cowpoke,” and Carlisle partially credits it for his current popularity. “There’s some [societal] sense that art lacks utility,” he says. “So you struggle with a sense of whether or not your work is valuable, whether or not you’re valuable.” By gravitating to artists like Carlisle, Western AF is ascribing significance to their work, diversifying the available music, and building a community around the channel.

“The feeling that musicians get onstage has massive communal energy,” Carlisle says. “Mike manages to bring that into the fucking editing room and behind the camera. And that, to me, that’s his paintbrush.”

Harrington and Vanata met on move-in day at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, when Vanata pretended to be a resident adviser by helping students move their boxes into the dorms—“the most harmless prank,” Harrington calls it. Forming a fast friendship, they shared music tastes and occasionally shot videos together; eventually, they both settled in Laramie. The pair balance each other: Harrington executes Vanata’s grand ideas, schedules appointments, keeps the books, perpetually tries to hide Vanata’s cigarettes, and cajoles Vanata when he’s feeling bad about a video; Vanata dreams big, is in Harrington’s words “the genius,” and lovingly thanks Harrington for keeping him in line by calling him “Dad”; when they fight, they buy each other gummy bears as consolation.

The music Western AF features defies genre terms. Many people call it Americana, a vague umbrella concept often applied to music by singer-songwriters whose work fans deem authentic. Others call it roots music, western music, folk, or country music. To Harrington, it’s a pure form of the latter, though the term has been corrupted by pop country, from which he hopes to reclaim the genre. Whatever the name, the music on Western AF is popular enough that ad revenue from YouTube is a primary means of support for Harrington and Vanata.

Western AF seeks out songs with heart that feel real. Made-up or true, each conveys an emotional veracity that’s relatable, delivered through detailed, skilled songwriting. When they capture an artist on video, Harrington and Vanata pick a shooting location that complements the song, aiming for an experience as intimate as if you were watching the musician play on their couch at home. The pair cemented this style, and its popularity, during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when, with music venues shuttered, Western AF offered a live-music substitute.

Musician Jade Brodie ascribes the channel’s acclaim to an ability to convey something intangible. “Certain songs, it’s like looking at a painting or looking at a photograph. You could talk about the light of a photograph till your face turns blue, but your soul is going to be drawn to it for God knows why,” she says.

In December, in the airy office Western AF rents in a converted school building, Harrington and Vanata plan for a shoot later that afternoon with Denver-based musician Danno Simpson. On one side of the room, their desks sit end to end in front of a mosaic of photos from their lives, taped to the wall. They spin Johnny Paycheck’s “Slide off of Your Satin Sheets,” then a John Prine best-of album, followed by Charley Crockett’s “Lonesome As a Shadow” on the record player. As often as not, Harrington and Vanata rib each other—“Bickering is our love language,” Vanata tells me, repeatedly. Finally, they decide they’ll shoot at the Cowboy Saloon and Dance Hall, where Vanata first met Colter Wall.

Hours before opening, the saloon is dark and vacant. A polished timber-plank bar stretches halfway down one side of the room, vintage bits and spurs and antlers dot the wood-panel walls, and behind the bar hangs a taxidermy hare clutching a beer can. Vanata and Harrington position Simpson on a narrow bench under a glass-block window that ethereally diffuses the afternoon light.

Setup is minimal: a microphone feeds into an audio recorder, one reflector on a stand bounces window light, and Harrington and Vanata each shoot with a handheld Sony camera. After a few jokes back and forth—Harrington makes fun of Vanata’s headphones, and Vanata chides him not to move the mic—they’re ready to film. “I think that some of the magic that comes is because shit’s all over the place and then it all falls into place,” Harrington says.

Simpson has chosen to perform “The Final Stand of Henry Lee.” It’s a song about an out-of-luck outlaw that Simpson wrote when he wanted to craft a murder ballad “without having another person get killed,” he says.

Throughout the day, Vanata second-guessed his choices and fidgeted, but now, with a camera in hand, he’s hyperfocused. Two takes in, he wants one more. He squeezes onto the bench facing Simpson for a tight shot, and Harrington crouches on the floor. Following Vanata’s suggestion, Simpson delivers the song’s climactic line—Lee’s mother appears to him in a dream, begging him to put down his guns—into the camera. Vanata punches the air: “That was it! You’re giving me chills, dude.”

“He definitely has that magic eye that finds the visual emotion in the song,” says Travis Blankenship, who manages Wall and several other artists who’ve appeared on Western AF.

Recently, Blankenship added Western AF to his artist roster, and last fall, the channel hosted its first in-person concert—a seven-artist showcase, featuring a mix of small and nationally known acts, that packed the Gryphon Theatre in Laramie. Harrington and Vanata are also planning to start producing vinyl pressings of their recordings.

“I think there’s a lot more emotional and artistic value to Western AF than just a YouTube channel,” says Benjamin Tod, the frontman for Lost Dog Street Band, who recorded one of the channel’s most successful videos—of his song, “Wyoming.” Harrington and Vanata have crafted themselves into a “cultural force,” as Tod puts it. “There’s no way to deny that Western AF is changing the shape of the music industry in general. Period.”•

Meredith Lawrence is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer.
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