Colter Wall, as well as many other growing “underground” country artists all posses a unique aspect about them. In Colter’s case it’s his no-frills raw sound and his origin. Unlike many country artists from the United States who grew up in the South or the Midwest, Colter Wall hails from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canada, and rather than find a more country or rock tone, his music tends to resonate more with the likes of ‘60s Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, and Moe Bandy. He does not stray away from home, however, for many of his songs call back to life in the Canadian country. The low growl of the young artist can be heard across the plains from Saskatoon to Brownsville, Texas, and I think this is obvious in what Colter himself calls his favorite and best yet: “Songs of the Plains”.
“Plain To See Plainsman” is the first track on the record, soothing into it. The seemingly biographical song is not overbearing, but rather calm and soulful. Full of scenes from his home, the track can be summed up by the line “these bones call out to the place they were born.” Rather than force a full band into the song, he utilizes instruments that fit the feeling and tone of the song, in this case his humming guitar, brushing drums, and crying harmonica. Fans of the red headed stranger, Willie Nelson, will find hints of him throughout the album and especially in this track.
“Saskatchewan in 1881” picks up a little pace from the previous track., focusing on the struggles of the blue-collar farmer/rancher, the toils they endure, the things the work for. The instruments do not steal the focus of the song, rather set the tone of the story of a man who knows what he believes and works for and isn’t afraid to stand up to the city man. The song does not show off, but rather it stays humble to the core yet plants a firm foot in the ground standing all on it’s own.
“John Beyers (Camaro Song)” is not a long song yet is a good tease into the rest of the album. By bringing the steel guitar, a more country vibe starts to spread in and take over the listening experience. The song reveals a story that is different to the farmer or cowboy but is keener to the outlaw.
The Billy Don Burns penned “Wild Dogs” is the 4th track on the record. To best understand it is to see it in two pieces: the first a story of a pack of “wild dogs” killing to survive, surviving to live, roaming the wild like a well-oiled machine, “with the grace of an eagle”, and the second part an instrumental that brings a feeling of caution, that they are now on the run. Like an old Clint Eastwood movie they have turned loose and set out to write the next chapter in their tale as the song fades into the sunset.
“Calgary Round-Up” calls back to the classic cowboy feel. A western song to the core, this cover of Wilf Carter does a splendid job honoring it’s predecessor. By staying true to the sound and intent of the track, Colter puts himself in a respectful position, literally filling in the boots of those left behind. The cowboy imagery and western pace would get any rodeo or western fan sentimental and nostalgic for the Calgary Stampede.
“Night Herding Song” echoes into the listener’s being. While not completely absent of instruments, the majority is filled with Wall’s soothing yet haunting and all around awe inspiring vocals. Backed up with the crackling of vinyl, the track sounds like a gospel tune mixed with a mother serenading her young off a record being played. It’s an extended date with the wonderful vocal work that Wall is capable of.
“Wild Bill Hickok” tells the story of a man by that very name. Like the old west tales of Wyatt Earp and Jesse James, we hear the story of a man who has been everywhere and done it all, surviving every bit of it to tell the tale. Steady and up-beat throughout, it is only fitting with the tone of the album that the track slow down at the end for the unfortunate conclusion to the story of Wild Bill Hickok that took place in Deadwood, South Dakota.
“The Trains Are Gone” brings back a Willie Nelson feeling. Replacing the rhythm and groove of his guitar with picking, the track shows the musical capabilities of Colter Wall right alongside his immaculate vocal skills. With references to the story of Billy the Kid and how he met his end at the hands of Pat Garrett the song stands as an ode to the golden age of railways. What’s a good western album without a train song?
“Thinkin’ On A Woman” is the bluesiest track of the album. Dealing with the loss of a lady, it focuses on themes of pain and hurt, as well as succumbing to those feelings, all while piloting a big rig down the highway. The lonely and lost will find themselves relating to this song, all while identifying with how it attempts to at the very least cover up the pain, if not put it in the rearview. Like the trains before it, you can’t legally have a good western album without heartbreak and big rigs. This exceptional track fills both of those perfectly.
“Manitoba Man” is the most unassuming track of the listing. Although the Manitoba Man is only mentioned at the beginning and end, the track still sings to the soul of anyone familiar with the pain of addiction. Sad, slow, and specifically dark, the lone guitar helps back up the story of a man who chooses drugs over his love. The song focuses on the sad truth that there are people so dependent on their own Manitoba Man.
Joined by Blake Berglund and Corb Lund, “Tying Knots In The Devil’s Tail” serves as a happy ending to the album. Up beat and fast paced, we hear the tale of a band of cowboys defeating the Devil in a fight. Although short, it’s a great juxtaposition to the song before: while the Devil can tie knots in some of us, many of us are strong enough to stand against him and give him a dose of his own medicine, and a little bit of ours as well.
The term “old soul” gets thrown around a lot, yet if there was a person that would fit this description it would be Colter Wall. Rather than give in to popular trends his style is simple yet fresh, and attention grabbing. “Songs of the Plains” is a story book in recording and isn’t afraid to adopt the label of Western. It isn’t complex, and it doesn’t have to be. Rather than oversaturate with guitar solos and full bands, Colter Wall incorporates instruments when needs and lets his howling voice do the rest for an incredible listening experience that is one of the best you will hear this year.
“Songs of the Plains” is available Friday. Head on over to www.colterwall.com and get your copy now!