BY ROGER SHARMAN
One of life’s idiosyncrasies is that the older we get the more sleep we need. However, it appears that the opposite happens, we sleep less. Teenagers have the ability to sleep for days, yet older folks battle to get two or three hours. I’m sure there’s a good scientific reason for this, yet I’ve never cared enough to actually look it up, I’ve always accepted that it can be explained by an overactive brain or an underperforming bladder, yet here I am with wild thoughts going through my brain at 4:30 am.
I’ve never woken at this time and thought “I need to get behind my keyboard immediately before I’m thinking maybe I am a serious writer after all”, or I just need a wee and a glass of water or is it that I need to listen to Colter Wall’s latest release ‘Little Songs’. In this instance it’s all of the above.
It’s little over a week now since this record dropped on the La Honda Records label (which is currently the home of a rich crop of other artists such as Vincent Neil Emerson, Riddy Arman and The Local Honeys). ‘Little Songs’ has been a beautiful companion in that time, indeed, since first hearing Colter’s debut album ‘Imaginary Appalachia’ and particularly ‘Sleeping on the Blacktop’ and ‘Ballad of a Law-Abiding Sophisticate’ this man has fast become my favourite Canadian on the planet.
When I reviewed ‘Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs’ back in 2020 I spoke about the romanticism his music evokes in me. His ability to transport one to a different place and time knows no abounds. The imagery contained in the songs that he writes is so vivid, I feel like I’m living in every song, yet my life is a million miles away from the life that incredible baritone voice sings of.
It’s always amused me that if you do a google search of Colter Wall people actually ask if he’s a relative of Johnny Cash. That’s also made me wonder if Colter was around sixty or seventy years ago, when Johnny was in his prime, who would have been the more successful, I’d like to think it would have been a close-run thing.
The seeds of ‘Little Songs’ were sown around about three years ago, during that strangest period of life anyone has ever experienced, Covid Lockdown, back when we were forced to live apart from each other. Colter has captured that feeling of isolation on this record, the feeling of being out on the huge rolling prairies, under the big sky, stars everywhere, a pot of coffee on the open fire and a guitar as his only way of keeping his sanity.
The first song on Little Songs is ‘Prairie Evening/Sagebrush Waltz’ and it’s an absolute belter to start things off. The verbal renderings captured are so vivid.
“Sucked down the last of my courage, I cut through the dust and the crowd, and I took her right hand, I asked if she’d stand, Merle Haggard was ringing out loud” – that’s just incredible writing in my opinion.
As the title suggest there are 2 parts to the song, which breaks into a Waltz half way through, very clever stuff.
Throughout ‘Little Songs’ the musicianship is striking. The pedal steel at the start of ‘Standing Here’ is to die for, in fact I have to doff my hat to the entire band for being as tight as mouses ear hole. I won’t lie, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor the first time I heard these tunes, and its still an involuntary action a week on.
Before I proceed, I should warn you I fear I’m going to sound like a boy who’s just discovered his first top-shelf magazine in his father’s sock drawer by the time I’m through with this review.
The third track is ‘Corralling the Blues’ and it hits me in the face like Mike Tyson’s legendary uppercut.
“I might get to thinkin’, that I might could quit drinkin’, but then what else is there to do, and it’s this contemplation, that might spur conversation, with the ceiling that I’ve been talkin’ to”
We’re sitting out on the prairie with a bottle of Rye Whiskey getting drunk to fill the time under the stars. I’m sure that resonates with so many people under totally different circumstances anywhere around the world, be it out on the plains, up in the mountains, or just being helplessly alone during the Covid years. Even the writer sitting at home trying to put his ideas down late at night with a bottle of Bourbon by his side. I think all of us can relate to that imagery.
“The Coyote and the Cowboy” is a cover, written by the legendary Albertan singer/Songwriter Ian Tyson back in the eighties, appearing on the “Cowboyography” album. Colter’s version is certainly a fitting tribute to Ian’s brand of western music. Wall has certainly put his own mark on it, like nobody else could in this era in my opinion.
“Honky Tonk Night Hawk” is my absolute favourite off this record, it’s my jam. The fiddle on this track is absolutely mind-blowing as is the pedal steel and harmonica. I literally almost fell of my seat when I first heard this song. Everything about this song pulls on my heart strings. Imagine reading every single page on the internet and the knowledge you will have acquired from that, most of it totally useless but everything you need to know, well this contains almost everything one needs to know about western music. I hope my neighbours love it as much as I do, they’re getting to hear it enough.
“Well I don’t care what’s cool or where it’s at, I’m congregating at the places, where the folks dress in boots and hat”
I want to go there, I want to taste the beer and observe, it shakes me to my boots. I’m not one to listen to songs over and over and over, I listen to music the way artists mean them to be listened to, an album the whole way through. This song is the exception to that.
Wall’s companion is his guitar, and he pays homage to it on “For a Long While”, much like Jinks did with “This Ole Guitar” but in a western style. It’s one of the more stripped-back tracks on the record, the very same guitar and THAT voice are really the focal points of this track along with the harmonica. The beauty of this song is in its simplicity, it allows one to just marvel at the tone of his voice.
‘Cow/Calf Blue Yodel’ is up next. Now anyone that can yodel well is a winner straight off the bat in my book. It’s an art form on its own and one that isn’t done often enough these days. Wall proved on his version of Wilf Carter’s ‘Calgary Round-Up’ that he has the lungs to carry off yodelling with ease and the tone in this song to ignite camp fires. Top marks once again to the Plain to see Plainsman for this track.
Right at the very essence of this album is the title-track “Little Songs”.
“You might not see a soul for days, on those high lonesome plains, you got to fill the big empty with little songs”
It’s the shortest track on the album, it’s also the most upbeat on the record. It tells the story of an old man in the valley, who’s spent his entire life visiting auctions to buy horses as it’s his passion and it’s cost him wives, and a lady who’s fighting her mind living up in the mountains, both existing in isolation battling with their demons. Yet again the picture painted transports me to a different place and time.
“Evangelina” was the first single from the album and is the second cover on the album. It’s a Hoyt Axton song, now here was a real character with a list of credits as long as the Amazon River. His mother co-wrote Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”. People of a certain age will recognise him instantly as an actor, he’s appeared in Bonanza, WKRP in Cincinnati, Different Strokes, Gremlins and numerous Tv commercials. His musical career is equally impressive, having had songs covered by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, and Joan Baez, as well as duetting with Tanya Tucker and Linda Ronstadt. More recently Dallas Moore did a wonderful cover of Hoyt’s “Della and the Dealer”.
Hoyt was born in 1938, married four times, struggled with Cocaine addiction, and with his wife, Deborah was an advocate of medical Marijuana, that he started taking to relieve pain after he suffered a stroke. He never fully recovered from his stroke and passed 26thOctober 1999 after suffering heart attacks in consecutive weeks.
Anyway, back to “Evangelina”, I’ve digressed enough for now, it’s a tex-mex track which really showcases the tightness of the band and more so Wall’s versatility on the Guitar. It’s not your typical Colter Wall serving but he certainly nails the song.
Similarly, to ‘Evangelina’, “The Last Loving Words” is another tex-mex track, the story is of eighteen men herding two thousand long horns from Llano Estacado (The Staked Plains), a region that encompasses eastern New Mexico, and runs through the Texas Panhandle, which would have been particularly dangerous in those days. The song is in the style of a letter to the characters lady as
“I fear that New Mexico is where my trail ends”.
I doubt there’s anyone around these days who could tell these stories better than Wall, certainly the likes of Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash, back in the day, would have killed these songs, but alas they are both long gone so Colter, that torch is yours.
Two minutes twenty into the song there is a small interlude which leads into the most wonderful harmonica and acoustic guitar solo that I’ve heard in a long, long time. Seriously it could be straight out of an old western movie.
I can’t praise this record highly enough, It’s an exceptional piece of work. I couldn’t recommend this more if I wanted to, out of ten I give it thirteen. If you’re not familiar with his back catalogue then go take a listen, he’s the very best around there is today at what he does. Also go check out Hoyt Axton, but only if you have time as you’ll end up heading down a rabbit hole.
I’m now ready to go back to bed!