Colter Wall Fills the Big Empty With Little Songs

On his fifth LP, the Canadian country artist sings about cowboys and their lives

Music Reviews Colter Wall
Colter Wall Fills the Big Empty With Little Songs

Canadian country singer Colter Wall possesses many great qualities. He’s a top-shelf songwriter, well-versed in the ways of traditional twang. He’s also a thoughtful lyricist, able to sing with authenticity about the hard-working days and hard-living nights of real-deal cowboys. He’s a competent guitar player, a compelling performer, a sharp dresser and, by all accounts, a humble human being.

And yet, all of it takes a backseat to that voice. As a vocalist, Wall is a once-in-a-generation wonder. His voice is as deep as a canyon, tough as tree bark and weathered like a hand-me-down saddle. He sounds like a 78-year-old troubadour trapped inside a 28-year-old’s body, and he has sounded like that since he arrived on the underground country scene a half-dozen years ago. He is—if you’ll indulge an already tired truism and some optimistic vision-casting—Johnny Cash for the 21st century.

That voice is the centerpiece of Wall’s excellent new album Little Songs, but that doesn’t mean it steals the show. Instead, it tucks snugly into songs like “Standing Here,” which clearly explains why his live shows are few and far between (he has two scheduled this year) and establishes his priorities:

I’m just hiding out
From all them music people
I’m sure they’d all claim to be my friends
But I’m not lying now
They’d sell me for a nickel
In my future or my pasture, they ain’t welcome in

To be clear, Wall is not just talking the talk. He seems every bit as interested in ranch work as making music, if not more so. His press releases are datelined Battle Creek, Saskatchewan, a rural area in the southwest corner of the province, and the art that adorns Little Songs features photos of branding irons, beautiful pastures and dozens of cows on the move as Wall (and others) look on from atop horses. “We calve in the spring and we ship ‘em in the fall,” he sings in “Cow/Calf Blue Yodel,” a folk-blues tune about the necessarily thrifty nature of cowpokes. “Come winter, find me digging through the pockets of my coveralls.”

More than he has on his previous albums, however, Wall spends time on Little Songs painting a picture of cowboys that extends beyond the fences of the ranch. “Prairie Evening/Sagebrush Waltz” is a fire-lit, pedal steel-streaked ballad that details a night of drinking up the courage to dance with a pretty lady. “Standing Here” speaks to the political and ecological worries of life in the 21st century, while the pastoral “For A Long While” touts the healing power of music and the road. On one hand, “Honky Tonk Nighthawk” is a swaggering celebration of closing down the bar; on the other, “Corralling the Blues” contemplates kicking liquor for good before asking, “What else is there to do?” and diving evocatively into depression:

When the day’s at a close
And I’m all alone
You can guess where my mind wanders to
It’s a feeling I’ve known
Since before I was grown
I’m howling, corralling the blues

As he has in the past, Wall fills out the album with a couple of covers: A shuffling, Southwestern take on Hoyt Axton’s “Evangelina,” as well as “The Coyote & The Cowboy,” a classic country number penned by the legendary Albertan singer-songwriter Ian Tyson—who passed away at the end of 2022. Tyson was a giant of the Canadian plains, and Wall is undoubtedly his heir apparent, which makes the song more than just a tribute—it feels like a passing of the torch.

On Little Songs, Wall proves he’s ready to grab that torch and run. “You might not see a soul for days on them high and lonesome plains,” he sings on the album’s title track, that voice as rugged and resonant as ever. “You’ve got to fill the big empty with little songs.” If anyone can do it, Colter Wall can.

Watch Colter Wall’s 2017 Paste studio session here.

Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.

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