Bard of the Prairie

Colter Wall’s New Album “Little Songs” is a Touchstone of Western Expression

There is an alternate version of history where the North American West coalesced into its own separate country. The great swath of land that unfurls like providence off the Continental Divide and doesn’t stop till it reaches the Pacific Ocean nearly became home to a new nation. President Thomas Jefferson envisioned it as a sister democracy to the United States, a “free and independent empire on that side of our continent.”

In 1810, with Jefferson’s encouragement, John Jacob Astor, the wealthy and ambitious New York businessman, organized and financed a dramatic quest to reach the mouth of the Columbia River, corner the lucrative fur trade, and claim the entire western territory, which included the two-thousand-mile coastline that connects the San Francisco Bay to Alaska. Astor dispatched two parties, an overland expedition from St. Louis and a seafaring one that would sail from New York around the tip of South America. In the face of impossible odds, grueling conditions, and gut-wrenching setbacks, both succeeded in eventually reaching the appointed destination.

But just as their mission was gathering momentum, the War of 1812 broke out between the United States and Britain, eventually leading to the version of history we know: a land sliced in two along the 49th Parallel, the final puzzle pieces of Canada and the continental United States.

For more than two centuries however, this once great empire has persisted, even in exile. Despite not sharing a flag, and being further subdivided by territory, state, province, municipality, tribe, faith, skin color, politics, grievance, and barbed wire, the peoples of the West have remained bound together through shared conditions, commerce, culture—and disposition. Indeed, over time, westerness emerged as a form of identity unto itself. More than a set of traits, ideals or lived experiences, being a westerner is, for many people, a fact of being, core to their very existence.

Ironically, it’s a region-centric identity that has never required proof of residence. A long line of artists, across forms and mediums, have taken turns igniting the imaginations of people everywhere, helping to curate the idea of the West. Early paintings and sculptures by George Gatlin, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and the Group of Seven begat O’Keefe, Cather, the cowboy poets, Steinbeck, Stegner, L’Amour, Erdrich, McCarthy, Autry, Ford, Eastwood, Robbins, Tyson, Owens and so many more.

Alongside phrasings invented by Shakespeare and rhymes that will make your heart clinch, his songs ripple with plainspoken truths.

Much of the popular storymaking of the West, of course, was fictional. A modern observer must sort through some false depictions and painful omissions to get at the more contextual history. That’s not to say it was all a lie though either. Under a big western sky, many truths exist. Today’s artists have both a greater freedom and burden to find the authentic West. No one is succeeding at that task better than Colter Wall. If Jefferson and Astor had achieved their dream of creating a new nation here, the 28-year-old Saskatchewan songwriter and musician would surely be its Poet Laureate.

Wall’s latest album, Little Songs, is not only a powerful expression of western identity, but also a work of true lyrical and musical craftsmanship, evidence of a preternatural and dedicated songbuilder at the peak of his powers. The record is his fourth full-length album in seven years, each one more confident, nuanced, and resonant than the last.

Wall is part of a new generation of artists reclaiming traditional country music sounds and stylings but operating outside the mainstream country music establishment. The revival is supported by a network of independent labels, video channels and festivals—and it’s finding large, enthusiastic, and fast-growing audiences. Wall has nearly 4 million monthly listeners on Spotify, a 60% increase just since last fall, and his music is regularly featured on TV and in film.

Among this cohort of new artists, Wall stands out as perhaps its premiere songwriter. His lyricism has been hailed by critics and peers alike. It is rich, imaginative, traditional, lively, and grounded. Alongside phrasings invented by Shakespeare and rhymes that will make your heart clinch, his songs ripple with plainspoken truths.

“I think having such a unique voice distracts people from the fact that Colter is in the upper echelon of today’s songwriters,” said Patrick Lyons, a long-time collaborator of Wall’s who co-produced Little Songs with him. “He paints vivid pictures with his songs, so that even people unfamiliar with the subject matter are able to relate on some level.”

Wall calls his music Country & Western, dusting off a term that’s been out of favor for at least six decades, and starting with his 2020 album Western Swing and Waltzes, the emphasis has been on the western. Historian Joshua Garrett-Davis, curator of popular culture at the Autry Museum of the American West and author of What is a Western, notes that contemporary expressions of western identity generally fall into two distinct approaches. One on side is the “rhinestone cowboy aesthetic,” a deliberately exaggerated depiction of the West, deployed by artists like Lil Nas X, Orville Peck and Quentin Tarantino. The other strand leans into realism, what Garrett-Davis calls “the dusty West.” This is the approach favored by Wall, Taylor Sheridan, auteur of the Yellowstone franchise, Sterlin Harjo, creator of Reservation Dogs, and filmmaker Kelly Reichardt.

In Wall’s case, he’s holding up a mirror to the West he knows. The pastoral west. The livestock and agricultural west. The sparsely populated west. The proud, lonesome, struggling, resolute Mother West.

While his initial EP and self-titled debut album provided portraits of the heart-breaking realities of rural life—poverty, addiction, despair—Wall’s most studied themes now are horses, cows, ranching, rodeoing and the rhythms of life in western Canada. He needn’t look far for inspiration. He owns a cattle ranch in southwestern Saskatchewan near where he was born and raised. No gentleman farmer, Wall works the enterprise year-round. His manager Travis Blankenship, who is known in the music community as the Rural Sultan, works with Wall to schedule tours around his ranch duties.

In an era of extreme artificialism, Wall is a welcome relief. Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan says Wall has earned the reverence of working cowboys. “Colter is the only musician exploring the isolating and beautiful life of the big-outfit cowboys of the American West and the Canadian Plains,” Sheridan says. “While most artists are motivated by observation and imagination, Colter feels motivated by the misery and the wonder of experience. Beyond his skill as a wordsmith or his talent as a musician, it is that sense his songs were lived before they were written. He’s certainly earned my reverence too.”

The first words you hear on Little Songs, from Wall’s unmistakable voice, are like the beginning of a story a friend might tell across the cab of a pickup, or over a campfire. “One evening, back home on the prairie.” They are an invitation. Sit back, relax, let the storyteller work.

That opening song, “Prairie Evening/Sagebrush Waltz,” goes on to recount the tale of a first dance between the shy, proud narrator, and a woman he sees standing “smack dab center fire…shaming the glow of the moon.” All of Wall’s talents are on display in the tune—the poetic language, the detailed scene setting, “Merle Haggard was ringing out loud,” the way the music deftly transitions to a waltz as the couple begins dancing, and the everpresent ethic of western Canada. If the Paul Simon lyric, “diamonds on the soles of her shoes” was a symbol of extravagant, conspicuous wealth, Wall’s humble and austere West might best be captured in the song’s knowing final line, “We could burn up this old native prairie/’Til there’s sage on the soles of our shoes.”

Wall’s love for his home region is perhaps the most authentic aspect of his music. Over his career, he’s produced textured, compelling stories set in Swift Current, Speedy Creek, Cypress Hills, Saskatoon, Bald Butte, making you feel like you are part of the scenery, and that the characters are your own neighbors. But he is a steward of the entire West, and his canvass extends across the region’s expanse. In this album alone he takes us to New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and back up to Calgary.

He wrote all but two of the songs on the new record, and the covers he includes also tell us something about how he sees the West. Hoyt Axton’s “Evangelina” is set in Mexico, narrated by someone desperate to get back to the woman—and region—he loves. “The Coyote & The Cowboy” is an Ian Tyson tune that features the famed Native American trickster. Both songs have been in Wall’s repertoire for years, but by including them on Little Songs, the album paints a more complete picture of the West, evoking Gloria Anzaldua’s perspective of frontier as “wherever two or more cultures edge each other…and dormant areas of consciousness are being activated.”

Wall is clearly a student of the region’s broad history. By recreating songs from its earlier storytellers—like Tyson, Axton, Marty Robbins, and Stan Jones—he is paying tribute to them and introducing their music to modern audiences. But he is also adept at combing through the West’s past himself and focusing his songwriting skills on historical events and circumstance. He’s curated his own catalogue of these songs—reminiscent of Shakespeare’s history plays—that bring its rich past to life. On the new album, “Last Loving Words” puts us on the 1866 cattle drive that established the Goodnight-Loving Trail, and along the way, tells a moving love story.

Patrick Lyons, the co-producer who has worked with Wall since 2018 calls Little Songs Wall’s most personal album to date. “This record seems like more of a personal reflection in that he’s not telling someone else’s story. The lyrics are vulnerable and it feels autobiographical,” he said.

Wall’s long-time fans will point to the lyrics on the song “Standing Here,” where he enumerates a list of things with which he’s grown weary. To be sure, for the stoic and studiously private Wall, the sentiments are revealing. But the song’s true revelation is in the chorus, in what he’s doing while the world around him gets more alien. “I’m just standing here//Looking out my window//Wondering if it’s ever gonna rain//I’m just standing here//Listening to the wind blow//Beating on my walls and on my brain.”

For the true Westerner, “I’m just standing here, wondering if it’s ever gonna rain,” is our cogito ergo sum.

“Wondering if it’s ever gonna rain,” is not some throwaway line. It’s been the central concern of Westerners since time immemorial, what you find when you strip away all the colliding cultures and ideas of the West, the real and romanticized ones. Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West puts it this way: “[T]he region’s aridity is its most salient feature, as water shortage has influenced so much of Western history, development and public policy.”

For the true Westerner, “I’m just standing here, wondering if it’s ever gonna rain,” is our cogito ergo sum. I think about rain, therefore I am. And when the world around you is obsessesing over trivial and material pursuits, it can drive you crazy.

Wall has always been proud and stubborn in his westerness. “No Eastern boy is gonna twist my arm,” he growls on “Saskatchewan in 1881.” He’s quick to defend her, as he does on “Cypress Hills and the Big Country Below,” when he sings, “You can sweat and cuss and wonder why, they say our west has died//When the folks around the Cypress Hills still drag calves to the fire.”

But what differentiates this record, and what makes it a true Western masterpiece, is precisely what Lyons observed – because it is personal. This is what you get when someone so truly of the West stops telling other people’s stories in favor of his own.

Country music scion Shooter Jennings has known Wall since he was first hawking demo songs.“ I knew he had big things in store,” Jennings said. “But seeing all of his success only makes me feel so reassured that we have somebody out there who really cares about the future of Country & Western music, and he comes in the form of a young cowpoke from Saskatchewan.”

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