It’s all holstein sofas, wagon wheel chandeliers and Louis L’Amour novels on Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs
Colter Wall is a Canadian country artist and, like his American counterparts, cites Johnny Cash as a defining influence.
The 25-year-old songwriter and guitarist also listened to a wide variety of non-country music, from Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan, to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. He started writing songs in his teen years, but didn’t get serious about performing until he was in college at the University of Saskatchewan. He dropped out, started a band, and hit the road.
Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs is Wall’s third album and, as he did on his first two outings (Colter Wall, 2017 and Songs of the Plains, 2018), he compliments his original tunes with well-known covers and a traditional material. He recorded the album in Texas, sitting in the producer’s chair for the first time, keeping obvious studio effects to a minimum. The vocals, and the stripped down band, were recorded without any sweetening, making it sound like they were recorded in an empty bunkhouse. It’s more cowboy/folk than modern country or Americana, which is refreshing.
Artist: Colter Wall
Album: Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs
Label: La Honda Records/Thirty Tigers
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
“I Ride an Old Paint / Leavin’ Cheyenne” is given a bare bones reading, just Wall’s weathered baritone and guitar, with minimal harmonica fills from Jake Groves. The performance is as timeless as the lyric. “Diamond Joe” is another sparse arrangement with guitar, fiddle and backing vocals by Emily Gimble. Marty Robbins’ cowboy hit, “Big Iron,” drops the backing vocals for Jason Simpson’s thumping bass line and fills from the pedal steel and electric guitar of Patrick Lyons. Stan Jones, composer of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” wrote “Cowpoke.” It was a hit for Elton Britt in the 50s. Wall slows it down and drops most of the yodeling, letting Lyons provide some atmospheric steel effects.
The originals are just as spare, the instruments mixed down to highlight Wall’s rumbling growl and lyrics so authentic you can imagine him blowing dust off the sheet music during the session. “Western Swing & Waltzes” describes the hard work that goes into being a cowboy, with pedal steel and kick drum staying in the background to support Wall’s vocal. There’s a taste of swing in the chorus, but it’s not Bob Wills swing, just a suggestion of tired cowboy boots shuffling across a floor.
“Talkin’ Prairie Boy” has a hint of Woody Guthrie in its delivery. It’s another story of hardscrabble cowboy life, and a put down of the easy existence city folks have, told with a bit of ironic humor that often falls flat. “Rocky Mountain Rangers” works better. The Rangers were a mostly volunteer group of mounted cavalry tasked with putting down a rebellion of the Métis people of Northwest Canada, but they saw little action before they disbanded. It’s a solid tune, with Simpson’s bass and Wall’s guitar providing the loping rhythm. “High & Mighty” praises the bucking bronco of the same name and would make a fine companion piece to Marty Robbins’ “Strawberry Roan.” Syncopated bass and big twangy guitar fills make it the record’s most modern sounding track.
AUDIO: Marty Robbins “Strawberry Roan”
The album closer “Throwing Houlihans at the Holiday Inn,” is one more cowboy song and a bit closer to standard country music fare. Wall sings about the tribulations of being on the road in a band, waxing nostalgic about his past life, as he looks through the tour van’s cracked window to watch cowboys herding cattle. Lyons adds icy Dobro work that probably makes the audience wake up and take notice when the band plays live. Wall sings that he’d rather be punching cattle than sitting in a Holiday Inn having fans buy him drinks, but he keeps touring and making records, which is a good thing for his audience.