REVIEW: Colter Wall’s “Songs of the Plains” is Lonesome Laments in Well-Worn Voice

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After less than 24 years on this planet, Colter Wall and his voice carry the gravitas of an elderly Johnny Cash if he’d been buried in the soil of Wall’s Saskatchewan home. On his second full-length album, Songs of the Plains (Young Mary’s Records), Wall uses original compositions and traditional tunes to tell lesser-known tales of his homeland.

An album full of cowboy songs and lonesome laments kicks off with “Plain to See Plainsman”. Simple acoustic guitar, harmonica and Wall’s well-worn voice (which lends credence to the young man’s songs throughout the album) tell of a wanderer broadening his world while “longin’ for home.” “Saskatchewan in 1881” adds bass and percussion to the instrumentation (which is reliably spare throughout). This song tells a story which American listeners can easily relate to – East (big money in Toronto) vs. West (struggling farmers) – “You’ve got my wheat and canola seed/You’re askin’ for more,” cries the working man.

For a traditional-sounding album, innovation makes a couple of surprising appearances. “Night Herding Song” is a plaintive dirge sung by a lonely cowboy. In recording the traditional western tune, Wall went to producer Dave Cobb’s house, lit up an outdoor fireplace, and recorded the track with natural sound. “Wild Dogs” is a hunting tale told from the perspective of (yes) a dog. Written by 1970s songwriter Billy Don Burns and featuring fine pedal steel work from Lloyd Green, the song’s origin story is nearly as fascinating and quirky as the track itself – Wall met Burns at a show venue too small to have a green room, so the veteran songwriter played the tune for Wall in Burns’ car. As extraordinary as Wall’s voice is, his truest gift may be his deep knowledge of and appreciation for traditional country music.

While outside songwriters and traditional tunes make a few appearances on Songs of the Plains, the album’s singular stunner is all Colter. “Manitoba Man” has Wall eager to leave town – “My time’s past due/Got to be movin’ along”, but not before finding a last bump for the road – “24 hours have passed since I last powdered my nose.” The departure – and the drugs – are indulged, at the expense of everyone and everything else in the singer’s world (apparently inspired by a rough patch in Wall’s own life). Absolute showstopper material.

The album was produced by the inestimable Dave Cobb and recorded in Nashville’s famed RCA Studio A. [For our earlier interview of Dave Cobb, click one of these bolded words.] In addition to covering Burns, Wall enlisted the songwriting talents of Wilf Carter for “Calgary Round-Up.” Also contributing musically are Cobb (acoustic guitar), Chris Powell (drums), Jason Simpson (bass), and Mickey Raphael (harmonica). Finally, the album wraps up with the country traditional “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tale”, featuring vocals from Blake Berglund and Corb Lund, spoons by Chris Powell and a “weird bottle of tequila” by Cobb (the stories behind Songs of the Plains are almost intriguing as the songs themselves).  Order your copy right here: www.colterwall.com

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