Colter Wall’s music embodies the mythos of a travel-worn troubadour on a seemingly never-ending journey. His rich baritone voice cuts through the dry sound of his guitar fearlessly and forcefully, yet maintains the calmness of still water in the summertime. His sound is rooted in foundational elements of country and folk music: lonesome tales of men wandering the countryside, sparse fingerpicking and whistling harmonica – it paints an aesthetic suited for that of cowboys and Indians.
His songs are uncannily a great fit for riding through big sky country and open deserts, and his compelling storytelling recalls the likes of Townes of Van Zandt. But opposite of the legendary Texas singer-songwriter, Wall (who comes by way of Canada) comes across as a humble journeyman who revels in his surroundings more than inside his own head. “I cut through the Rockies like some unholy blade, the icy depths of the Pacific I have bade,” he bellows on the intro track from his new album, “Plain to See Plainsman.” The new record, fittingly titled Songs of the Plains, is a tribute to Wall’s homeland – a collection of cowboy covers and heartfelt dispatches from a man on the road who yearns for the comfort of familiar soil.
For as much as Wall longs to return home, his lyrics are fall from desolate. He romanticizes the simple life, remaining stoic and well-assured, even as he describes unstable situations. He finds a balance between classic North American folklore and everyman appeal to capture his recent experiences as a young traveling musician. On “Wild Bill Hickock,” his character turns a bear encounter into a fashionable new coat, and on “Thinkin’ on a Woman,” he invades the mind of a truck driver stuck on the thought of a distant girl.
“Saskatchewan in 1881” imagines the cold-weather farm life of 19th century Canada and features Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson) on harmonica. Much like the rest of the album, it’s subtle in nature, sonically, but excellently produced. The stripped back nature of each track gives the album the distinct feel one gets when immersed in absolute wilderness, when the only things to listen to are the moans and groans of backcountry grass and hills.
While there is a solid dosage of light-hearted song topics on the record, there’s neither a shortage of dark, ill-spun tales. “Manitoba Man” doesn’t rank among the most original drug-fiend ballads in country music, but Wall’s chilling voice is more than enough to make the story a captivating one.
Multiple cowboy folk songs find their way into the tracklisting as well, with the nearly musicless “Night Herding Song” and the rowdy sing-along “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail,” the former of which is an eerie showstopper – the type of song that could soundtrack a documentary on the Trail of Tears. Though they aren’t originals, perhaps no tracks carry a deeper personal sentiment than these. They represent the cloth from which Colter Wall is cut, the cultural bearings that have informed and shaped his artistic persona. They are tales that have been passed down for generations, and yet they fit right at home in the heart of an album so wrapped up in the feelings of being homesick.
Many people may take Colter Wall as a breath of fresh air for country music. It may not be fair to lump him into the current scene, or anything modern for that matter, as his style couldn’t be more opposite of forward-thinking. When absorbing Songs of the Plains, however, one must take into account the intentions and inspirations of its creator, and what value those ideas still hold for the modern day musician. Being stuck in the past is frequently frowned upon, as is selling out to commercial trends, but paying homage will never go out of style and neither will singing from the heart.