Of all the improbable achievements and benchmarks set by independent country in the last few years, none has been as astounding as the ascension of Colter Wall and his specific version of authentic Western songs. There was no economy for this music for him to enter into, no sizable audience to inherit, no immediate forebearers to piggyback on like Tyler Childers had in Sturgill Simpson, and Zach Bryan had in Tyler Childers.
Western music has always had its appeal among certain people, but it’s been decidedly niche for some 60 years. Colter Wall might be the most popular Western singer since Marty Robbins, and he built it all out of whole cloth from the strength of his enrapturing voice capable of teleporting the listener to a time better suited for Louis L’Amour novel, and a place more similar to the setting of a Remington painting.
Colter Wall’s new album Little Songs is a continuation of the second phase of his career, which has been centered around reinterpreting classics from the Western music canon for a new and enthusiastic audience, while sliding in his original works in hopes they will eventually land alongside the old classics in the Western songbooks and recordings of the future.
Some have bemoaned and criticized how Colter started his career with more dirty and aggressive songs like “Sleeping on the Blacktop” and “Kate McCannon” that in many respects still remain his signature tunes. Some wish he would continue in that vein, while others say it certifies his inauthenticity as a cowboy singer. But when Colter released his debut EP in 2015, he wasn’t even of legal drinking age. He’s still only 28. Colter was still searching for himself. Where he found himself is in cowboy songs.
Simplicity and authenticity is what Colter Wall holds as paramount. You won’t be especially wowed by the cunning of his songcraft, or the compositional prowess of the songs. They’re Western songs that work from their plainspoken and folksy nature. Many of Colter’s original songs, including two new ones on Little Songs (“Honky Tonk Nighthawk” and “Cow/ Calf Blue Yodel”) employ a very simple blues progression.
But when you happen upon a song like “Corralling The Blues,” it’s hard to not fall for the appeal. “For A Long While” feels like a song that has been around for a century, even though Colter just placed it in the universe right now. Though mostly what you get is songs about being out on the plains or under the stars, Colter also includes a little night life in the town on Little Songs, giving the album just enough honky tonk moments and steel guitar to keep it interesting.
Then Colter places all of these songs beside old Cowboy and Western tunes such as “The Coyote & The Cowboy” by Ian Tyson, and “Evangelina” by Hoyt Axton. The song that might best describe the overall vibe and attitude of Colter Wall’s approach to life and music is “Standing Here.” It starts to say something prophetic, but then stops short. It wants to get political, but then doesn’t. It kind of doesn’t say anything, which says it all.
Where the magic comes into play for Colter Wall is the entire package. He’s committed to singing what he lives, and living what he sings. While he could be packing theaters coast to coast on tour, he instead is out there on horseback. As opposed to taking big media opportunities with guys like Joe Rogan, he’s going on little independent podcasts, if he engages with the press at all.
Though on paper this would significantly affect Colter Wall’s pocketbook, it hasn’t. His streaming numbers are rather incredible. His syncs in film and TV soundtracks are through the roof. And when Colter does perform live, he can command a high dollar.
But none of this is what Colter Wall is about. His most valuable asset is the mystique he’s built around himself. He’s a cowboy that writes and sings songs, sometimes. Not vice versa. And in an era of artificial intelligence and rampant untrust in every institution, this arcane but enthralling background narrative is what turns otherwise simple an understated songs into an egress out of the modern and ordinary, and into realm where the skies open up, the hills roll, and you’re free.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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