Prairie in Bloom: Colter Wall – “Live in Front of Nobody”

Editor’s Note: This is a review of Colter Wall’s March 11th live stream event “Live in Front of Nobody,” contributed by Sean Herington Smith.

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Colter Wall’s music has been evolving ever since he entered the public consciousness in 2014. And it’s no wonder, he was only 19 when his EP Imaginary Appalachia was released. He was still coming of age. Each of his next three albums was a slight departure from the one before it, and they stand out today like frozen still images of an artist in transition. With each release, his mesmerizing voice has gotten tamer, less resonant but more diverse, and the emotional tenor of the songs has gotten lighter.  And of course, along the way, his catalog of music got a lot more western. 

Wall’s performance on March 11, backed by the Scary Prairie Boys and billed as “Live in Front of Nobody,” was the first proper concert since his most recent album Western Swing and Waltzes came out last August. Except for a couple of solo livestreams and a few stray songs from his bunkhouse, Wall’s largely been out of view for more than a year. As such, the virtual event at Nashville’s historic Sound Emporium Studios represented an opportunity for him to provide a long-delayed signature performance, and at the same time, leave behind another time capsule—this one of early ’21 Colter. 

Fans who paid $15 to watch the pre-recorded session saw a confident and relaxed artist make his way through an ever-expanding repertoire, and dole out a few surprises like “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?” first recorded by Charley Pride in 1970, and a yodeling rendition of “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,” grinning as he changed the line to, “kicking hipsters asses and raising hell.”    

Colter Wall is now a mature, fully realized music creator, exploring and reinventing the canon of western songs, and contributing to it with his own pieces. His command of the genre was on full display during the performance, which included Roger Miller’s “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me,” and “Cowpoke” by Stan Jones, which is on the latest album, along with a spirited “Jimmie Rodgers deal,” as Wall called it. Among his own songs, he played “Rocky Mountain Rangers,” the snappy tune about a real-life Canadian militia from 1885, and the foreboding “Henry and Sam,” a lament about the legacy of gun manufacturers Samuel Colt and Benjamin Tyler Henry.  

Not everyone likes to see their favorite musician evolve, and grow out of the phase that first drew them in, and Colter Wall understands that. His most viewed YouTube performances are from the earliest stage of his career, when he was a different artist altogether. Clips from his 2015 “Brewery Sessions” have been viewed more than 10 million times, dwarfing all his other videos on the channel. Fans have been falling in love with those performances ever since, swooning over his deep baritone voice and the brooding persona behind the black cowboy hat. 

He couldn’t be more different today, and he grasps the challenge those earlier videos present. He tweeted last October, “I’m glad folks still enjoy those brewery sessions from 2015. I can’t watch them without cringing. The vocals are very forced. I’m grateful for what their popularity has done for me, but I hope folks are able to accept that I simply don’t play/sing that way anymore.”

If there was a defining moment in the Nashville show that represented his evolution, it was the version he played of “Motorcycle.” Originally released on his 2017 self-titled album, the dissonant song with dreamlike imagery and weary lyrics was an instant fan favorite. Like all the songs on that record, Colter Wall sang it in his signature timbre that some said could turn water into whiskey. But in this session, he confirmed what he tweeted last fall. Not only does his evolved singing style apply to his new songs, it’s how he’s going to do the old ones as well. Brewery Sessions Wall is gone. More than that though, he also added a new verse—one that was written by his buddy Blake Berglund, and inspired by Wall’s entry into the cattle business.

“Got a handful of cattle, put my brand upon their side,
Now I gotta learn to rope and I gotta learn to ride.
With a little bit of luck gonna keep ‘em all alive,
Got a handful of cattle, put my brand upon their side.
Get a C and a W and blaze into their sides.” 

The new verse, along with Pat Lyons’ skilled dobro and Jake Groves’ rangy harmonica, transformed the very nature of the song, re-casting it into a Western tune that lives in the same skin Wall now inhabits. Judging by some grumbling in the comment feed, not all of Wall’s fans will accept his transformation, but that is how it often goes. Dylan was booed for changing course. Mid-career Cash was left behind when he would not. But it worked out alright for both, and there’s a version of the future where Wall’s long career is compared to theirs. 

Hopefully Colter Wall’s new session will be on YouTube soon, allowing a wider audience to assess and appreciate where the art form has taken him, and where he has taken it—and contemplate where he might yet take all of us. 

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