By Eric Brown
ENTERTAINMENTJuly 13, 2012
Weld songwriter making a name for himself in Nashville to headline Beef Fest Saturday:
Acknowledging in one breath his childhood dream of becoming a world-champion bull rider and the event that spurred him instead into a career of singing and songwriting with country-music elite, Austin Wahlert chuckles at how life has unfolded — even if recalling the details is a little painful.
About two years ago, Wahlert broke his back after being thrown from a bull in Loveland — marking the second time in as many years a bucking bovine had sidelined him with a fractured vertebrae, and bringing his tally of bullriding broken bones up to about 25.
When Wahlert woke up after being knocked unconscious from the injury, his eyes focused on a demo CD next to his bag, sitting just beyond the spurs of his kicked-up boots.
The recording was one of his own material — the culmination of a hobby Wahlert hadn’t taken as seriously as others suggested he should.
But that moment was enough to persuade Wahlert, now 23, to set the bullriding dream aside. Since then, he’s played sold-out shows to crowds of 8,000-plus and recorded an album with John Cougar Mellencamp’s former musicians, along with others who have performed with the likes of Garth Brooks.
“I wasn’t really expecting all of this when I decided to go this direction. At the time I couldn’t stand up, and just thought to myself, ‘surely I can’t get hurt this bad writing songs,” said Wahlert, who will be headlining the Greeley Beef Fest Saturday — a gig for which he canceled shows in other states because the focus of the local event aligns with the themes of his songs and his deep love for the northern Colorado way of life. “It was an interesting road I had to take to get to where I am, but I’m very grateful for where I stand today.”
In the years leading up to his last back injury, a persistent grandfather and established songwriters in Nashville, among others, told Wahlert he had a gift worth giving to the country music world.
He appreciated the kind words, but that’s not how he had planned to live his life. Wahlert, an Eaton High School-graduate who grew up on a 3,000-acre ranch, was born to be a cowboy and got a full-ride scholarship to do so at a college in Texas known for developing world champion bull riders.
However, on that day two years ago in Loveland, Wahlert’s body finally told him differently.
Wahlert is now working on a second album. He’s touring nationally while song writing and recording in Colorado, Indiana and Nashville, all in hopes of fusing his love for Chris LeDoux, Roger Miller, Marty Robbins, Randy Travis and Aaron Watson and perfecting a style of his own — one he began creating when he wrote his first song seven years ago at the age of 16.
Wahlert first picked up a guitar in his teens, with the help of his guitar-playing grandfather, Robert Gulvas, who served in the Korean War while also entertaining troops overseas.
Not long after his grandfather taught him just four chords, Wahlert wrote “Rodeo Man,” his first composition that would go on to be the opening track on his self-titled debut album, released at the end of last year.
His grandfather, who died last year following a battle with Parkinson’s disease, always insisted he was natural at crafting songs, and he received an additional push from a high school music teacher, who finally persuaded Wahlert to take his first music classes as a senior.
Wahlert’s heart remained set on becoming a world-champion bull rider, but, as soon as he arrived at Odessa College in West Texas, injuries, mostly those broken bones, knocked him out of the sport about every six months, he said. While he was sidelined, he played music in local honky tonks to make money and pass the time, and when he was healthy, he performed in bars along the rodeo circuit.
Performing at national rodeo events, Wahlert made connections that brought him into contact with some of the biggest names in Nashville song writing — Wynn Varble, Erin Enderlin, Bryan White and David Lee, all of whom have written chart-toppers for some of country music’s biggest stars.
They, too, agreed Wahlert had a songwriting gift, and also a unique way of telling the true tale of the cowboy life, since he had long lived it.
When Wahlert was ready to put bullriding aside, they were all ready to help him hone his song-crafting skills, and are still guiding him.
Despite the demands of his developing country-music career, Wahlert — who also owns a custom-leather design company that sells products in five countries and serves as an endorsement agent for the likes of world-champion bull rider Kody Lostroh from LaSalle — still calls Weld County home, living in the area with his wife, Justine. She’s the art teacher at Valley High School in Gilcrest, and the couple is expecting their first child in the fall.
Wahlert travels to Nashville once every two months, one week at a time, to write songs and record, and spends the rest of his time back at home living the cowboy life — looking for more true inspiration for his craft.
“I’m as blessed as I possibly could be ... to only be in the industry as long as I have been, and to have met all of those connections through rodeo,” Wahlert said. “And also to stay here at home, in northern Colorado, while I’m doing all of this.
“I couldn’t be happier.”