Colter Wall is newly 23 years old, with pale skin and a spray of freckles across his nose and cheeks that make him look younger. His eyes are bright blue, his hair and beard golden-red and shaggy. On a recent evening at the Calgary Stampede, the Saskatchewan-born singer-songwriter wore a wheat-coloured cowboy shirt open to the fourth button and a dusty black hat. In slim Wranglers and beat-up boots, he cut a silhouette so cowboy it looked like he had just stepped out of the rodeo ring.
As he warmed up with his band before an evening performance at The Big Four Roadhouse, a song began to emerge from the sounds of tuning instruments, and Wall’s voice filled the air. It is a smoky baritone, unexpected and arresting, a new voice and yet a deeply familiar one – tinged with memories of the original outlaws of country in their heydays, hints of Waylon and Willie and Johnny and Merle. It is a voice of another time and place, one that can make a bland backstage room feel more like a gathering around a campfire on the prairie. A voice that led one fan on Facebook to surmise, “This boy sold his soul to the devil for that voice.”
Wall strummed his guitar and tapped a worn cowboy boot on the carpet.
“What was that?” asked Blake Berglund, a musician and friend from Saskatchewan, who was hanging out with Wall and his band that night.
“An old cowboy tune,” Wall said. “Waylon does it, though.”
With two albums under his belt and a third coming this fall, Wall is already getting big-name notice. No less than Steve Earle has raved about his music and his voice, saying Wall is the best singer-songwriter he’s seen in years, and describing his songs as “stunning.” The New Yorker and Rolling Stone have written about Wall, and Pitchfork has called him “one of country’s most exciting young voices.” His work has been compared not only to that of the original icons of outlaw country, but of songwriting legends such as Bruce Springsteen. Currently living in Nashville, Wall returned north this month to play at Stampede and take in a couple days of rodeo with his band.
Though he was born and raised in southwestern Saskatchewan – Wall grew up in Swift Current, a city of about 16,000 people, 2½ hours west of Regina – he speaks with a drawl more reminiscent of the American South, and in language that hints at another time. He uses words like “reckon” and “fella,” and he calls people sir and ma’am. The ends of his words often slide off into an apostrophe. His fingertips are stained cigarette yellow, his hands rarely empty of a Bud or a bourbon.
On his right arm is a tattoo of a wild rose and a Colt 45 with “Pancho” written on the barrel. There was supposed to be a “Lefty” to match, but it was his first tattoo and he had no idea how much they cost, so he spent all his money on the first.
“I cleared my whole bank account, which is why the left arm is still bare,” he says. “But that’s a whole other story.”
He is the son of one of Canada’s longest-serving premiers, a man who led the province of Saskatchewan for 11 years, nearly half of Wall’s life. But in this story, Brad Wall is not the former premier but the dad of a young musician, buying a round of drinks or a bite to eat for his son and his son’s band at one of the biggest rodeos in the world.
Wall spent most of his childhood interested in football and sports, the lone son between two sisters in the Wall family. His dad loved country music and his mother, Tami, asked that all her children learn an instrument. Wall started on piano, but, as he entered his teens, picked up a guitar.
“And then, sometime around Grade 11 or 12, this voice came out,” Tami remembers.
He started with rock, drawn first to the electric guitar and bands such as AC/DC and Black Sabbath, which led him on to blues, then to folk and traditional, and eventually, right back to where he started, to the country music he heard at home.
“I fell down this rabbit hole of needing to know where these songs came from, and it kept leading into other genres and it kind of became a full circle thing, because eventually I was listening to what I grew up with in the house,” Wall says. “If you delve down the world of folk music long enough, you’re headed straight to country and western.”
His first public performance was at the historic Lyric Theatre in Swift Current. He remembers being so nervous, he performed the whole show with his back to the audience.
Wall says it took him three or four years of trying before he came up with Ballad of a Law Abiding Sophisticate, the first song he felt was worthy of recording. More songs followed, and soon he headed out on the road. He says he moved to the United States after playing a couple of shows in Kentucky that went so well, he decided to stick around for a while.
Veteran bass player Jason Simpson met Wall two years ago, as Wall was trying to put a band together in Kentucky. Simpson says he walked in to meet a fresh-faced kid half his age who’d never played in a band before.
“And then he opened his mouth and that voice rolled out, and I knew. I knew right then and there,” Simpson says. “When that voice opens up, it’s unlike anything I’ve run across, and I’ve been doing this my whole life.”
Simpson says the effect was so powerful that the first time they went out on stage together, he just stood there for a moment, entranced by Wall.
“He has the potential to be a legend,” Simpson says. “Other people see that, too. I’ll probably be dead and gone by then, but I just want to be part of it so I can be part of his story.”
Wall’s songs are at turns lonely, haunted, desperate, hell-raising, busted. They are about women and the devil and the road, about booze and drugs, about falling asleep in the snow in Speedy Creek and being arrested by the RCMP. They are unapologetically country, proudly western.
His new album, due out this fall, was recorded in RCA Studio A in Nashville, next door to where Marty Robbins recorded, using equipment Robbins himself once used. The album is called Songs of the Plains, a work Wall says is born out of his love for the Prairies, an ode to his Saskatchewan home and the romance of “that big empty landscape.” It will be mostly original compositions, with a few traditionals thrown in.
“I wanted to cut a record that was about the plains, about the flatlands, to tell the story of the land that I come from,” he says. “Not a lot of people outside know about it.”
He stops to think about the Prairie sky for a moment, as Prairie people are wont to do.
“You can see everything,” he says. “There’s nothing in the way.”
He recently went in on some cattle at his cousin’s farm in Saskatchewan, a mix of red Angus cows and Simmental bulls that are currently out to pasture. He has nine, after losing one. “Starting small,” he says. “But even if it’s small, it’s something I always wanted.”
He registered his own cattle brand, a “CW rafter,” his initials with a bent line, like a roof, over top. Of the options he was given, it seemed like the best one, a real working livestock brand that would also look good on a kick drum or a t-shirt.
He sometimes seems alone, even in a crowd. He walks away from lunch his father has arranged in an exclusive private club on the Stampede grounds, striding out past a crowd of corporate cowboys in brand new hats and boots that have never seen real Prairie dirt, with no more than an “I’ll see you later” tossed over his shoulder to his dad and the band.
He’s gone when a cover of one of his songs starts to play. “It’s weird to have that happen,” his tour manager says, about the cover song. “Fans all over, I guess.”
The band finds him outside later, sitting on the ground in the shade of a decorative barn, and they all head to watch yuppies fall off a mechanical bull. Later, they drift back to the rodeo, where they drink beer and look for girls, and Wall stands squinting in the hot sun with a Bud and a cigarette, the thunder of hooves echoing in the breeze as a line of chuckwagons goes roaring by.