The murder ballad is an art form designed to haunt and captivate, thrill and unsettle. From Leadbelly’s “Frankie and Albert” to Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger,” It has narrated countless killings gong back centuries, offering music’s most literal tales of romance and violence. Some would say it’s a lost art. Colter Wall would disagree.
The 21-year-old Canadian troubadour with the breathtaking baritone visited the Paste Studio recently to perform tracks from his debut self-titled record, released earlier this month. His third song of the day, “Kate McCannon,” told the story of an honest guy who quits his rambling to settle down with his beloved, only to find her out by the creek with another man. Wall described why these dark stories of jealousy and rage move music fans so much.
Listen to Mississippi John Hurt play the murder ballad “Frankie and Albert” in 1964, an exclusive clip from the Paste Cloud:
“I think it’s a wonderful tradition in that realm of songwriting that’s kind of been forgotten to a certain extent,” he said. “I think a lot of people aren’t aware of that tradition and because of that I’ve caught a little bit of flack for writing a murder ballad…It’s not like anybody who wrote those was condoning shooting a loved one, or murdering anybody for that matter. It’s a story. It’s just a good story, and it makes for, I think, great songs. It’s a great subject. I’m happy to try to write songs like that and try to do those old folk songs justice and give them new life.”
Wall also performed lead single “Thirteen Silver Dollars,” plus “Motorcycle” and a haunting cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Snake Mountain Blues.” Check out the full session below.