In the current landscape of the widely-celebrated independent country scene, there are several artists who’ve cemented a strong reputation and following based around delivering songs with a consistent sound and stylistic palette. You have Tyler Childers’ Appalachian roots music; Jason Isbell’s emotionally-charged mix of campfire folk and heartland rock; Turnpike Troubadours’ hooky, dusted-up red dirt country; the list goes on. When it comes to the stripped-back country-folk of the American frontier, no one does sparse and gritty like Canadian singer-songwriter Colter Wall.
On his third album, Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs, Wall expands his increasingly deep catalog of cowboy ditties and prairie songs with another batch of high and lonesome tunes alongside his excellent honky-tonk style band. Like previous releases, Western Swing & Waltzes includes a fresh mix of original compositions and revamped versions of country and western classics that dwell on the life, luck, and labor of various rural characters ranging from lawmen to cowpokes. Wall and company add instrumental color and dark undertones to Marty Robbins’ 1959 crossover hit “Big Iron,” lend a wistful element to the spacious traditional “I Ride an Old Paint,” and spruce up the cow pusher’s lament “Diamond Joe” with gorgeous finger-picking and fiddle arrangements that sound like they were recorded in an old barn or saloon.
The storytelling throughout the record is delivered with a personal intimacy that attests to Wall’s authentic experience as a ranch hand and well-traveled troubadour. One one end, his lyrics immerse you in a simple language that evokes the stillness and natural beauty of the western plains. On the flipside, he’s keen to hook you in with a great story. Where this record adds a layer of depth to Wall’s discography and stature as an artist, is with its cold and plaintive sermons that analyze the human condition. Not only is Wall singing to us about different cowboy personas, he’s exploring the burdens of their hard lifestyle through the nature of the decisions they make, the people they associate with, and the places they are from.
On “Henry and Sam,” a Wall-penned gunfighter ballad, he croons a tale about a legendary outlaw sharpshooter. Rather than bask in the lore of being a revered bandit with a fast hand, Wall acknowledges that the same quality that has gained his cowboy a large reputation has also caused him to lead a dangerous life that often puts himself and others in harm’s way.
Even on less complex songs, such as the dreamy cover of Stan Jones’ “Cowpoke” and “Houlihans at the Holiday Inn,” there is an overt directness that allows the imagery and simple narratives to resonate at maximum value. On the former, Wall yodels his way through a satisfyingly mundane existence, pondering his solitary life with plain yet potent lines like “I’m lonesome but happy / Rich but I’m broke” and “I ain’t got a dime in these old worn out jeans / So I’ll stop eating steak and go back to beans.” Subsequently, the melancholy touch on “Houlihans” makes it the perfect album closer, evoking the feel of a warm, packed-out tavern gig in the middle of winter, when warmer days are a far and distant memory.
Beyond Wall’s introspection and thematic explorations, it should not go without mentioning that much of the best material on Western Swing & Waltzes is in part to the work of his superb backing band. While they don’t always appear on a song at the same time, the instances they show up in unison make for some of the album’s most memorable tracks. The slow-building array of piano, pedal steel, harmonica, and fiddle on “Western Swing & Waltzes” and the rickety percussion on “High & Mighty” are danceable, infectious, and near irresistible. That the influx of instrumentation throughout this record was executed so well speaks to the talent of the supporting cast and Wall’s continued evolution as a performer and crafter of sound.
Colter Wall has built a name on steady output and an identifiable country sound, but the sharp songwriting and unabashed folkiness that characterize his music are a far cry from the slick and polished feel of most modern day Americana. Instead, his songs feel worn and lived in, bucolic and pastoral without seeming nostalgic, romanticizing the remote allure of ranch life and the peace that comes with it in a genuine way. Western Swing & Waltzes may be his best work yet and his well of old-time songs and captivating originals only seems to be deepening.