It’s a Friday afternoon in June and I am driving through the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming playing phone tag with musician Colter Wall. After winding through Shell Canyon, alongside grassy meadows with dense clusters of brilliant yellow flowers, and avoiding a cow and two bull moose (or as Wall later calls them, “swamp donkeys”), I finally get consistent cell service on the west side of the mountains. Arriving in Sheridan, I find a strategic parking spot close to the famous King’s Saddlery. Seems like an appropriate spot to chat with the Canadian cowboy.
Originally from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, a city less than 100 miles from the Montana border, Wall, now 26, has released three successful full-length albums, an EP, and multiple singles. If you aren’t familiar with his discography, you are probably familiar with his voice, and if you aren’t familiar with his voice, listen once and you’ll remember it. He has a rich baritone that makes singing about rifles sound like a sweet lullaby.
Both of us being part-time Tennessee residents, Wall and I have spent time together in the do-si-do social life of Nashville honky-tonks. We met (I think) in 2018 at the American Legion Post 82, and the last time we saw each other (we think) was in 2019 at the Ranchlands concert. Each time I’ve met him, Wall was an expert at being gracious, deflecting compliments, using people’s first names, and sharing his whiskey.
While I chat from my car in a Sheridan parking lot, Wall is in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan, near the town of Maple Creek. “I recently acquired a little bit of dirt up here,” he tells me, “along with some black Angus yearlings.” While tours were canceled and travel restricted during the pandemic, Wall spent much of 2020 working at a friend’s ranch in Texas. Like many of us, this time gave him a newfound perspective on his priorities. And now, after six years of hard touring – two months on, one week off – he plans on spending much of spring and summer at his new home, then hit touring hard in the fall and winter. He’s hoping for a bit more balance, or, he says laughing, “I may just lose my ass.”
His land on the Saskatchewan plains hasn’t had a building on it since the 60s. “There’s no power, there’s an old well somewhere… but for now I just set up my camper by the corrals and haul in water and propane. Sometimes I’m pleased to not have electricity.” He’s been spending his time off from touring taking care of his yearlings, helping at his neighbor’s brandings, and riding his Dad’s five-year-old buckskin gelding, Rod. “Or, as I like to call him, Rod Stewart.”
Back in June, Wall released his first video at his new home, a tender song, “Evangelina,” written by Hoyt Axton. Though he is skilled at bringing new interpretations to old songs and elevating them, he is equally adept at creating his own and is prolific in his writing. His songs have been featured in movies and television series including “Yellowstone,” “Deadwood,” and “Hell or High Water.” He has nearly 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify, with his most popular song, “Sleeping on the Blacktop,” at over 68 million streams. Country artist Steve Earle called him “the best singer-songwriter I’ve come across in years,” and his celebrity fan base includes the likes of Jason Momoa and Post Malone. Despite this recognition, it’s startling how approachable he is, as well as how generous he is with his time. When I asked him if I could chat with him about a few of his songs, he characteristically replied, “Honestly, you just name them, and I’ll tell you everything I can remember about them.”
PLAIN TO SEE PLAINSMAN
Let me die in the country that I love the most
I’m a plain-to-see plainsman, and this I will boast
A heart that lies far from the East or West Coast
This plain-to-see plainsman is longin’ for home
Longin’ for home
“Plain to See Plainsman” is the first track on Wall’s 2018 release,Songs of the Plains, an album that is a compilation of semi-autobiographical stories and western tunes. This song is in ¾ time, making it a waltz. Wall based his melody off of the classic cowboy song “Strawberry Roan,” which originally dates to 1915 with its first publication by California cowboy poet Curley Fletcher. Wall’s favorite rendition of “Strawberry Roan” (with some hesitation on choosing) is Marty Robbins’ version followed by Chris Ledoux’s take that has “a bit more gitup.”
“I love Strawberry Roan… I copied the melody on purpose… that way I won’t get tired of singing it. I always say if you want to be a good songwriter you’ve got to a) listen to the right stuff and b) steal from the right people. There’s nothing new… it’s all been done before… we are all ripping someone off and they ripped someone else off too. That’s the history of music.” For Wall, a lot of his song inspirations are 20, 50, or over 100 years old.
It’s not just the melody of “Plain to See Plainsman” that is so compelling, but the subject matter. Yes, it’s a nostalgic song about home, but it also gives attention to an area of North America that’s often overlooked: the plains of Saskatchewan.
“People don’t know much about Canada – there’s a general disinterest,” Wall says good-naturedly, “but Saskatchewan is a pretty special part of the world.” He’s right. A mix of boreal forest and prairie, Saskatchewan has a fascinating ecological and cultural history, but of the historical 60 million acres of prairie that once encompassed Saskatchewan, only 8.2 million acres (less than 14%) remain.“In North America our number one endangered ecosystem is the native temperate grasslands,” Wall shares. “But cattle can mimic the historical relationship of native bison on the plains… and play a role in responsible land management.”
Caroline, oh Caroline
I’ll be home just at any old time
The grave and the garden won’t be satisfied
Until your name’s next to mine
In 2015, Wall released his debut EP, Imaginary Appalachia. He was 19 when he wrote those songs and was immersing himself in American roots music. He traced his interest back to classic rock, blues and country, bluegrass, and Appalachian folk songs.
“Western music was familiar, growing up on the Northern Great Plains, but this mountain music from the Southeast was new to me. I didn’t know anything about this actual part of the world because at that point I hadn’t been there – so I called it my ‘Imaginary Appalachia’… it was a fantastical version of it in my head.”
The song “Caroline” is Colter’s favorite on the EP (as well as a common favorite of his fans). “I think that’s the best written of any song on that album – it was one of those that felt like I didn’t write it – it felt like it shot out of the sky. Once I had the first line, I knew I would go back to the Appalachian influence, that it would be sentimental, and would be a song about the passing of a loved one.”
Even from the first verse, it’s full of evocative Appalachian imagery:
There’s a place where the sun doth shine
And the birds keep time with the pines up a’yonder
That’s the home of my Caroline
She’s dancing in the sky
“I remember thinking, if I can make my grandma and mom cry when they hear it, I think I have a good one.” He pauses. “Oh that sounds terrible,” he laughs.
Over the years since Imaginary Appalachia’s debut, Wall’s voice has evolved and matured. The reason? “I learned how to sing,” Wall replies with a laugh. “Up to the point of that first EP I had only written and played guitar, I had never really sung. But I had these songs I had written and I figured, I guess I better try to sing them, because who else is going to do it?” On the first EP, Wall relies heavily on his distinctive baritone. “That’s what I knew how to do, I didn’t have any vocal range… I would gravel up my baritone… that was my trick.”
For Wall, “Since then, while on tour, even when we weren’t on stage, I’d practice harmonizing, I’d try to sing harder, try to yodel, and just find ways to stretch my vocal cords. I’d do impressions of singers I love and try to sing in a different register, that’s one of my favorite things to do.” I instantly think of Merle Haggard singing impressions on the Glen Campbell show.
“I kept learning and was training my voice to sing and not just growl in a microphone — which I still do — but now I have a bigger bag of tricks.”
HOULIHANS AT THE HOLIDAY INN
I’m paid well, a tale I’ll tell and sing
And I seldom pay a cent for my drinks
The folks in here tonight think I’m a king
I’d trade it all for a double rigged saddle and good pair of chinks
“Throwing Houlihans at the Holiday Inn” is the last track on Wall’s most recent album Western Swing & Other Punchy Songs, released in 2020. “To really sum it up – that’s my wannabe cowboy song,” he says laughing. The houlihan is a classic one swing rope throw. He wrote his nod to it during a grueling stretch of tour that went through some particularly beautiful western country in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, and the Dakotas. “I thought to myself, it would be so great to saddle a horse for the first time in a long time… it might sound silly but I was feeling sorry for myself on the road.”
The reality of touring (much like the reality of ranching) is much different than its perception. There is a monotony, a pressure, and a grind that is palpable in the music industry, especially at Wall’s level. “At the start, you try to get your legs underneath you and mash as many shows into a year as you possibly can. It’s not really a sustainable way to live. You can’t do that long-term and be healthy.”
One month on the road will leave you wondering
How any man could ever want for more
But 3 months on the road will leave you stumbling
Falling through another hotel door
It’s a theme that’s been extensively explored — Danny O’Keeffe’s “The Road” comes to mind, Jess Winchester’s “A Showman’s Life” (you might know the George Strait version), or Del Reeves’ “Looking at the World Through a Windshield.” The fascinating dichotomy of this song is a young man who has a highly romanticized occupation singing about another highly romanticized occupation- a rancher.
Is it in our nature to be continually discontent? The paradox isn’t lost on Colter–he is uncommonly self-aware and has a clever sense of humor:
And I’ll sing you all the songs of my working cowboy kin
Then it’s back to throwing houlihans at the Holiday Inn
Though music is his main profession, he is an incredibly quick study with his western pursuits. During our conversation, he makes jokes that surprise me with their deep-cut references. At one point he suggested the two of us might have some “Hancock in us” because we wear a large hat size. (Hancock was a famous American quarter horse sire whose offspring were known for being stout). He is also cognizant of finding mentors, many of whom crossover to both the music and the western worlds (Corb Lund and Mike Beck, for example). He’s even been studying up on the horsemanship philosophies of the Dorrance brothers but continually downplays his efforts. “I’m really not much of a horseman at all — I’m still figuring out some of the basic stuff.”
That is what makes Colter Wall exceptional–he clearly has innate talent, but he’s thirsty. “I’m the type that likes to bury myself in whatever work I’m doing.” A rare combination of gifted yet grounded.
So, I had to ask, how was his houlihan?
“Oh, it’s pretty brutal.”