An impressive, lean and mean follow-up to Wall’s self-titled breakthrough.
Colter Wall is a 20-something Canadian inhabiting the spirit and voice of a 70-something cowboy who has led a hard life. Indeed, the first time one encounters Wall’s idiosyncratic vocal style ,it’s easier to think of him as some long-overlooked singer-songwriter in the Guy Clark/Townes van Zandt vein who has spent the last half century plying his trade across the plains of his native Saskatchewan. There is such a remarkably incongruous disconnect between his deep, craggy vocals and his still-boyish face covered in a patchy beard that it almost becomes distracting. Yet, if you’re able to put this aside, Wall has, over two full-lengths and an EP, shown himself to be one of the best songwriters in the traditional cowboy sense.
Songs of the Plains is his most fully realized release yet, offering up a collection of timeless cowboy/outlaw songs that do not come off as having come from the pen of someone who barely managed to catch the ‘90s. Sounding far more comfortable and settled into his cigarette-and-whiskey voice and once more assisted by the ubiquitous Dave Cobb behind the board, Wall delivers 11 songs that would not have sounded out of place on any number of post-Sun Records Johnny Cash albums. There are murder ballads, songs of lovelorn drifters and general hardship that tap directly into the longstanding tradition within country and folk music of exploring the darker side of humanity.
In an Instagram post prior to the album’s release, Wall indicated that the album was an unabashed collection of cowboy songs in the traditional sense and provided a half dozen albums, primarily from the early-to-mid ‘60s, that he claimed served as inspiration. It’s not hard to hear the influence of these albums by the likes of Marty Robbins, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Tex Ritter, Wall’s lyrical content finding a home squarely in the midst of these singing cowboys. “Wild Dogs” and “John Beyers (Camaro Song)” could easily sit alongside any of the songs on Ritter’s 1960 collection Blood on the Saddle, an album cited by Wall as a direct influence on Songs of the Plains.
Continuing to work in a stripped-down setting, Wall’s approach allows his lyrics to stand front and center, supported by his lonesome acoustic guitar and occasionally augmented by Lloyd Green’s pedal steel and Mickey Raphael’s harmonica, both legends within the country music world, and other assorted traditional instruments. But each is little more than color complementing Wall’s bleak storytelling, never overstepping their bounds or distracting from the music. Bringing in old pros like Green and Raphael—who, between them, have played with everyone from Cash to the Byrds to Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson—helps to add a whole new level of authenticity to Wall’s already-lived-in approach to country music.
Despite the genre’s American foundation, Wall manages to firmly root his music in his native Canada, creating vivid portraits of the land and its people on songs like “Saskatchewan in 1881,” “Calgary Round-Up” and “Manitoba Man.” Fellow Canadian Corb Lund lends a hand on the rollicking “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail,” ending a fine collection with a solid throwback cowboy song. Like the rest of the album, it’s an unassuming story-song that relies on its narrative structure to carry the day rather than any sort of flashy production gimmickry.
Indeed, Songs of the Plains is an impressive, lean and mean follow-up to Wall’s self-titled breakthrough, building on the promise contained in the latter and unapologetically following his influences into the sunset, prevailing trends be damned.