Video Channel ‘Western AF’ Is Helping Fuel the Western Resurgence

Willi Carlisle / Colter Wall / Sierra Ferrell

It’s taken a community of contributors to create the environment we now enjoy in the independent country and roots world where whenever a worthy talent emerges, they’re nurtured and supported, and don’t have to run off to major labels and Music Row to make it, or languish in obscurity until they eventually quit. Sure, an outlet like Saving Country Music can be the first or one of them to talk about these artists in print and put some support behind their careers. But the impact of print mags and websites can only go so far here in the digital and multimedia age.

It’s been a host of video channels that have become significantly instrumental in helping to launch and support a throng of now successful artists that in previous eras we’d all assume would be way too niche to find significant support. It was Sierra Ferrell’s rendition of her song “In Dreams” in 2018 from a channel called Gems on VHS that helped put her on the national map. The video now has over 6 million views, and Sierra is playing theaters. Much of the success of the Lost Dog Street Band can also be attributed to the Gems On VHS channel, along with many other artists.

Another video channel with similar success and impact, but one with an even more distinctly niche approach that has somehow defied odds to become a quite successful launching pad for artists is called Western AF. You can probably guess what the ‘A’ and ‘F’ stand for. Based in Laramie, Wyoming and founded by buddies Brian Harrington and Mike Vanata, Western AF can boast its own track record of success with launching videos and artists.

It was Colter Wall’s version of the song “Cowpoke” from September of 2019 that took the Western singer from surging, and placed him into the stratosphere. It also happened to be the success of that particular video that put Western AF on the map, and allowed Brian and Mike to take the enterprise more seriously so they could devote more time and resources to it, and highlight more Western artists and songwriters from across the spectrum. It’s that “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” approach that has been so critical to the ongoing success of independent country and roots artists too authentic for the mainstream.

Colter Wall’s Western AF “Cowpoke” video now has over 6.6 million views. Western AF videos from Sierra Ferrell, Charley Crockett, Nick Shoulders, and Willi Carlisle also boast 7 figure view numbers. But maybe even more important are some of the artists we may have never heard of if it weren’t for the Western AF channel, like authentic cowgirl Frankie Zwick, who works on the Hell and Back Ranch in Converse County, Wyoming. She recently recorded a Western AF video for her song, “The Waylon Jennings Blues” after a day of wrangling and branding cattle.

This is no staged scenario. Frankie Zwick and her fellow cowgirls help keep one of the biggest ranches in that portion of Wyoming going, and really stop down to sing songs around campfires at night. Western AF just happened to be invited to capture it.

Often a Western AF video release will coincide with the announcement or the release of an album, helping to highlight artists at the most important times that they need attention. This also helps out a website like Saving Country Music by providing video illustrations to accompany announcements or reviews. A video of Bennen Leigh’s “Obsessed with West” was released right around the same time as her new Western Swing album of the same name. An especially emotional rendition of Willi Carlisle’s “Tulsa’s Last Magician” was released right at the same time as the announcement of his new album Peculiar, Missouri out July 15th was made, and the studio single of the song was released.

The videos in turn help out not just the artists, but their labels, managers, publicists, and booking agents who are trying to create a buzz around these artists. It helps the music festivals and venues that book them to promote their shows. In a busy world where a potential fan may not have time to jump into a full album or read a lengthy review or feature, a well-composed video in the right setting can create the moment that makes them a fan. Then they often go searching around for more info, get the album, and read the reviews.

What’s also been fortuitous for the Western AF channel and the artists featured on it has been the timing. Along with the renewed interest in Western music spurned by young artists such as Colter Wall, there has been the widespread popularity of the Paramount series Yellowstone and it’s multiple offshoots. The TV series is now the most popular thing on television aside from the NFL, and it’s soundtrack very much dovetails with the content of Western AF. There’s also the massive Under The Big Sky Festival in Whitefish, Montana, which has become one of the premier independent country/Americana events all year.

“We’re on the wave,” says Brian Harrington, who manages the administrative side of the Western AF channel. “We’re putting on the music that we love. That’s out only benchmark for who is on the channel, and who isn’t. It’s not even so specific to genre. It music that we feel is contributing to the greater artistic excellence of this sort of underground authentic songwriting. There have been a lot of things that have piled up that we would have never predicted such as ‘Yellowstone.’ But I think more so than this pivot to Western culture—and since we’re in Wyoming, the Western culture has always been present, it never went away—I think the change is toward really authentic music. I think that’s what has changed more than anything.”

Western AF also caught another unlikely break in COVID-19. With so many artists unable to tour, it gave an outlet and opportunity for musicians to continue to perform and create, and isolated fans at home something to be entertained by and perhaps discover something new, and help transport them to different settings than the four walls of their homes as they yearned for that live music experience they couldn’t get at that time.

“We had this whole plan before COVID started that we were gonna go all over and go to these festivals and what not to get videos of these artists, and then COVID happened,” explains Mike Vanata, who is the on-site director and videographer of the channel. “We thought, ‘Oh shit, we don’t even have a future now.’ Then it occurred to us that we had all of these musicians just sitting in their homes who we could just go to and get these little private concerts from them. So during COVID was a chance for us to test our mettle. And I think we were able to prove we could do it.”

There is no dearth of videos for artists out there in 2022, whether it’s them performing, lyric videos of their songs, or even scripted full-budget music videos with actors and plots, etc. But so rarely do any of these truly capture the true essence of an artist like a Western AF video. Much of this has to do with the settings they choose, and Mike Vanata often travels to locations across the country to capture artists, along with doing shoots in Wyoming when possible.

“I think collaboration with the artist is a huge part of this,” says Brian Harrington. “You have to have your camera out and ready, and have had set up a good situation. But in a lot of ways we’re just pointing our cameras at a musician until they make magic. These moments are because the musician is bringing something to the video. They’re willing something into existence. We point the camera, and they make the magic. In a lot of ways, we’ve just been lucky from who we’ve been able to work with.”

The artists also help curate the channel. Since Western AF is looking for the artists off the beaten path who don’t always have representatives or folks pushing them, they often run off the suggestions from other artists.

“One of the best resources that we’ve had for finding this music is actually the other artists that we feature,” says Mike Vanata. “Even after a take, we’ll sit around, have a beer, and someone will bring up a name and say, ‘You’d be crazy not to film this person.’ So we’ve just been holding a treasure map of authentic artists, and the artists that we work with are pretty much marking the ‘X’ every time.”

Brian and Mike also see the value in making sure that women aren’t overlooked in this current resurgence in authentic songwriters and anything Western. Riddy Arman, Kassi Valazza, and others owe a large portion of their name recognition to Western AF, and vice versa.

“Obviously that’s a pervasive problem in the country music industry specifically,” Brian says. “When we were growing up, 90s country had all kinds of women. And then thy got squashed out over time. I feel like it would be a disservice if we did not pay attention to that, because there’s just as many women songwriters as there are men. They just don’t always get the light shined on them.”

Brian Harrington and Mike Vanata met in college in 2007 when Brian was moving into the dorms, and Mike told him he was an RA (Resident Advisor). Mike actually wasn’t an RA, he was just a good dude who wanted to help folks move in. Mike was studying broadcast journalism and Brian was working in photography, and so their interests crossed paths. After college, they kept looking for a way to keep collaborating and keep cameras in their hands, and Western AF was born.

Brian welcomed his first child about 18 months ago, so he mostly sicks around Laramie and also runs a commercial photography business. Mike helps keep it real by working part-time on a bison ranch. They both would love to do Western AF full-time, but also don’t want it to feel like work. The fact that it’s remained a passion project for them is how they can remain passionate doing it.

They also are quick to give props to Gems on VHS for helping to inspire the channel and helping them out early on, speaking to how these video channels are not competing with each other, but working in a collaborative effort, each taking a slightly different approach, but all feeding into the support network for independent artists where certain video now get significantly more views than something featured on CMT. With these video channels, it’s not only helping independent music challenge the mainstream, it’s threatening to help independent music replace the mainstream.

On Thursday, June 9th, Western AF will debut a video pairing up Sierra Ferrell and Nick Shoulders—two artists who’ve toured together, and been featured on the channel before. They’re also two artists Saving Country Music was one of the first ever to feature in print. But it’s the videos from these independent channels that have helped spread the word for these artists far and wide, offering a glimpse into the magical world of independent music three to five minutes at a time.

© 2023 Saving Country Music