Colter Wall has never made the same album twice. His first one, 2017’s self-titled debut, was like a Townes Van Zandt album from the wilderness, a sparse, desolate album filled with men making bad decisions on bad drinks. Then 2018’s superlative Songs of the Plains was like a modern Marty Robbins record, an album filled with outlaws, damsels in distress, and tales from the edge of society, which, for Wall, is Saskatchewan. For this year’s third album, he stays in Marty Robbins’ era, but leans more toward Hank Snow territory: The characters in these songs aren’t outlaws, but instead just normal folks living in the country milking cows, riding horses, and drinking at the Holiday Inn. It’s called Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs not as a lark, but because it’s the most accurate way to describe this set. It’s an album that imagines country as it was in 1965, when it was centered on good songs about the struggle of everyday folks. It’s one of 2020’s most calming, centering LPs.
On his first two albums, Wall worked with Young Mary’s Record Company and super-producer Dave Cobb; this time out, he’s on his own, self-producing this record for La Honda Records, a new indie that he’s the central star of. Cobb always produced Wall as a moody, back alley crooner, with heavy atmospherics on everything; this record, conversely, sounds positively chipper, as Wall’s distinct baritone is malleable and varied over these 10 tracks. When I interviewed him in 2018, he mentioned not wanting to be pigeonholed into a specific mode of country music, and he definitely does a lot of work to prove that here.
Western Swing opens with its title track, a big, boisterous song about raising cattle, which if you follow Wall on Instragram, know is one of his central day-to-day concerns. The song’s jocular harmonica solo is a new look for Wall, as is the song’s loping tempo. “High and Mighty” finds Wall and band at a hoedown, singing about a tough horse, and “Rocky Mountain Rangers” goes near bluegrass with its tale of western lawmen. And he delivers a spritely faithful cover of Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron,” one of the singing cowboy’s fastest songs. The Colter Wall that made songs that were perfect for Sons of Anarchy is off to the races and doing new things. Wall’s voice has always been central to his appeal, but one of the best parts of charting his evolution through his records is how well he’s grown into that voice as he gets more confident. It’s hard to remember that he’s in his mid-20s when you hear him open his mouth and the sounds of the past come out. As he’s gained control over his instrument, he’s been able to do impressive things with it on record, and there’s an absolute show-stopping moment on the back half of Western Swing. “Cowpoke,” a shuffling herding song, starts as a floating waltz shuffle, with Wall softly crooning the verses. But then he starts yodeling in a higher register in the choruses, and its like fireworks emit off the album; there’s no one else who can sing like this right now, and no one else making albums like this right now. By the time the song ends, you realize Wall is a singular talent, and you can’t wait for whatever’s next.