Innovation is awesome, and music would be dead in the water without it. But innovation grows out of tradition, so it’s important for young artists to come along and keep tradition alive. What makes 24-year-old Colter Wall special is his ability to stay within traditional music stylings, while sounding fresh and contemporary, rather than stale and reactionary. That’s what the Canadian C&W artist does on his widely-acclaimed second album Songs of the Plains, and that’s what he did for his first ACL taping, which we live streamed around the world.
Following Terry Lickona’s introduction, Wall and his four-piece backing group took the stage. Singing and picking alone, Wall opened the show with “Thirteen Silver Dollars,” essentially a folk song that became country when the band kicked in. He then reached back into Canadian musical history for the rodeo honky-tonker “Calgary Round-Up,” penned by Nova Scotian Wilf Carter (AKA Montana Slim in the States), Canada’s first country star and the father of Canadian country music. With a midtempo take on Johnny Cash’s “boom-chicka-boom,” Wall went back to his catalog of originals with “Saskatchewan in 1881,” highlighted by Jake Groves’ harmonica solo. He and the band then laid out a classic tear-in-your-beer two-stepper with “Thinkin’ On a Woman,” a perfect vehicle for his craggy baritone. Wall followed that with a brand new song, the folky cowboy tune “Happy Reunion,” penned by his songwriter friend Mike Beck and recently recorded in Texas. Straight from that new take on the cowboy tradition, he went to another song from the past: the waltzing “Cowpoke,” written by Elton Britt and recorded by a host of luminaries, including Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, Jr., Riders in the Sky, Glen Campbell and Austin’s own Don Walser. Again, without pause, he essayed the next tune, and it was another old classic: Marty Robbins’ murder ballad “Big Iron,” which garnered immediate cheers at the first line.
With the crowd in the palm of his hand, Wall then gifted us with another brand new song entitled “Western Swing and Waltzes,” a danceable honky-tonker with the air of a future setlist staple. Ditto “Hoolihans,” another unrecorded tune that dips into the tradition of songs about being on the road a little too long and using cowboy roping shots to stave off boredom. Itt took on extra poignancy stripped to just Wall and steel guitarist Patrick Lyons on dobro, to the crowd’s delight. That was followed by an older original, the witty, two-stepping “Motorcycle.” He paid more tribute to the Canadian C&W tradition with “The Coyote and the Cowboy,” taken from the catalog of British Colombian legend Ian Tyson. Then it was back to his own songs with the waltz “Plain to See a Plainsman,” a song Wall explained just “poured itself out” – Groves’ harmonica break earned enthusiastic cheers. Wall ended the set with “Sleeping On the Blacktop,” a fan favorite with dueling dobro and harmonica and a palpable sense of menace. It was a fine, stirring end to the show, and the audience clearly loved Wall’s earnest revival of old-school country & western. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.