Album Review – Colter Wall’s “Western Swing & Waltzes…”

photo: Brad Coolidge

You can’t truly save country music if you’re continuously compromising and acquiescing to what country music is actually supposed to sound and feel like as it gradually slides to becoming completely indistinguishable from everything else. You have to insist that actual, authentic country music has eternal value, and can still be cool and relevant with no modern adulteration. Because it can.

Cowboy and Western artist Colter Wall from Saskatchewan, Canada is not cutting or diluting his music to conform to anything. His songs don’t just veer toward the most authentic and unfettered versions of Western’s music’s legacy, it’s the very embodiment of them. Often, they’re the very legacy songs themselves. By all measures and prognostications, old ranch and cattle tunes rendered authentically and anachronistically shouldn’t resonate beyond an incredibly niche audience of lost-in-time cowboys and the hipsters who love to emulate them. But it does, and it is.

Despite being as old school as they come, Colter Wall’s appeal and ascent are very much a virile phenomenon appealing to young and old alike, and benefiting from new school channels of discovery. Videos of his performances go viral. Influencers from across popular culture—from actors, to wrestlers, to Joe Rogan—promote the 25-year-old on Instagram unprovoked. In a word, Colter Wall is cool, and it doesn’t matter how you feel about traditional country music. And that coolness extends to the old-time country and Western songs he introduces to his audience that heretofore were lost in time to the modern ear, while adding to them with his own original score of cowboy tales told in first person.

Though it’s easy to still think of Colter Wall as the new kid in country & Western, we’re now five years removed from when his debut EP Imaginary Appalachia had us all picking our jaws off the ground from hearing his one-in-a-million voice. Let’s not fool ourselves here. It’s not that an untapped appeal for songs about saddles and prairies was lurking out there among the greater population. It’s that Colter Wall’s vocal tone includes a magnetism that attracts all. But early Colter Wall music was much different from what he performs today. The voice was lower. The style and mood were more Gothic, like a graphic novel version of Johnny Cash. Playing a bass drum with his boot heel, it was a cousin to the punk country style instead of interpretations of arcane compositions.

Now with his fourth record overall, Colter Wall calls upon the classic cowboy legacy in country music even more than he did with his 2018 album Songs of the Plains. Without in any way injuring the unique character of his voice, he’s now signing a bit higher, and has added a warble and a yodel to his repertoire. He’s tripled down on trying to illustrate that traditional cowboy songs have a place in today’s music diet, and stimulating that appetite to grow by lending his incredible voice to the discipline.

Breaking away from the Dave Cobb production of his two previous records, Western Swings & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs finds Colter Wall down in Texas at the Yellow Dog Studios, cutting songs it a much more loose, and sometimes devil-may-care environment. Some of the songs on the record feel delicately crafted for a full, immersive effect, like his take on the Stan Jones standard “Cowpoke” with the lonesome harp and yodels hitting you just right, or “Big Iron” made popular by Marty Robbins that fans have been salivating for in studio form. But a few of the tracks like “Diamond Joe” and “Talkin’ Prairie Boy” are just a live mic set up in the middle of a room, and sound like it.

It’s fair to wonder and worry if Colter is taking a risk by continuing to be so austere in the approach to his music, and if his appeal is still mostly riding off his early stuff that was more original and edgy. But the truth is Colter Wall is making his own appeal and audience no matter where he goes. All bets are off here. He shouldn’t have even made it this far running through old trail songs. But he’s continuously proved wrong the people who’ve insisted his music has a low ceiling.

With the amount of covers and rough tracks, it’s probably tough to call this Colter Wall’s greatest effort, even if many of the songs here make great additions to his already beefy arsenal, and even if he’s been playing them live for a while. The rough takes were what he was going for, not a production flaw—to put you in that cattle camp or bunk house huddled around an oil lamp and whiskey bottle.

Like Colter Wall sings about in the final song “Houlihans at the Holiday Inn,” he’s just a ranch kid from the plains of Canada who feels more comfortable in the saddle than staring out a dirty windshield and hanging out in hotel rooms. And as time has gone on, he’s settled into his role as the preeminent cowboy poet of this country music generation. He couldn’t care less if it makes him rich or finds major appeal. He’s doing it for the love, and the audience gets to ride along through tales that are timeless in the way they offer an escapism from mundanity the same way Western music did for generations past.

Colter Wall’s authentic, rugged expressions and rich voice so compliment, caretake, and elevate what we thought were archaic themes with little appeal, it has awakened a renewed interest and vitality in the cowboy themes that are so critical to the foundations of country music, proving once again that country and Western doesn’t need to conform to be cool. It just needs to be itself, and to be championed by natural talent.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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