Country newcomer Colter Wall arrives from another time and place
The Canadian province of Saskatchewan is almost as big as Texas. The Lone Star State, home of Guy Clark, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson, now has more than 28 million residents. By contrast, the “Land of the Living Skies,” as Saskatchewan calls itself, only recently inched over the 1 million mark.
“It’s the plains,” explains Colter Wall, a 22-year old newcomer whose bottomless voice and soaring storytelling skills have country music fans making grand comparisons. “It’s a wide open, big-sky kind of place. That certainly has a lot to do with the music I make.”
His fellow Saskatchewanites have a well-traveled joke, he says: Their homeland is so big, “you can watch your dog run away for two weeks.”
Wall, who plays Friday and Sunday at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge, displays a precocious mastery of classic hard-luck country-music themes on his self-titled, full-length debut, produced by Nashville’s current Midas, Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton). There are stark songs about jealous murderers, serious benders, riding the rails, and blowing your last “Thirteen Silver Dollars.”
But Wall’s music somehow reaches back to a time that predates the Nashville recording industry — a time of “folk” music handed down on intimate terms, one person at a time. In fact, he’s been laying tracks for a new album set to combine Woody Guthrie-style songs in the public domain with a few of his own originals, which will, he vows, sound of a piece.
“Always, for as long as I can remember, I’ve liked old stuff,” Wall says, on the phone during a break in a studio session. “Even before old folk and country records, I liked old cars. In school I was listening to stuff my folks listened to when they were in school.
“I guess you love what you love. I’m not sure why that is.”
When Wall first met Cobb, they sat down in a diner and talked about the old records they both admire. Cobb had heard good things through the grapevine about Wall’s introductory EP, “Imaginary Appalachia” (2015).
“And that was that,” Wall recalls. “We finished our meal and went our separate ways. Couldn’t have been a week later, I found myself on the phone with him, and he said, ‘Hey, man, let’s do it.’ Simple as that.”
Together they agreed upon a “mission statement” for the record: “Less is more.” Most of the album is acoustic, with sparse instrumentation. Dramatic moments are punctuated not with power chords but haunting drum rumbles that sound like prairie warnings.
One of the album’s lighter moments comes on a jaunty, major-chord ditty called “Motorcycle.” The opening lyrics: “Well, I figure I’ll buy me a motorcycle/ Wrap her pretty little frame around a telephone pole.”
“With that one, I know it was about 4 a.m., and I crawled out of bed and wrote it,” Wall says. Onstage, he introduces it by saying the song wrote itself.
“I really do feel I had little to do with it,” he says. “It just fell down onto my head.”
Born in the ’90s, Wall has grown up in a world of connectivity and instant access. Given his penchant for another era, it’s a “weird dichotomy,” he says.
“The thing is, I’ve been able to find a lot of that stuff [vintage music] because of modern-day technology and the Internet,” he says, drawling faintly. “I always say there’s no excuses — you can find anything. I’m the kind of person, once I like something, I get obsessed with it. In a lot of ways, the time I’ve grown up in has served me really well. I can find all that stuff, and maybe 20 years ago I wouldn’t have.”
Lately he’s been partial to a few of the less celebrated names from the heyday of outlaw country. For one: the late Blaze Foley, whose Reagan-era song “Oval Room” — “Everywhere he goes, make the people mad/ Makes the poor man beg and the rich man glad” — Wall has been singing onstage.
“It’s eerie how relevant that song is today,” says the singer, whose own father, Brad Wall, a descendant of Mennonite homesteaders, is the current premier of Saskatchewan. It’s not a fact the younger Wall has been eager to make a central part of his own story.
“I’ve always been very wary of that world,” Wall says about politics, hastening to note that his parents have been very supportive. “To me personally, it’s a lot of talk, and not necessarily a lot of action.”
There’s been a bit of online muttering about whether or not Wall can be counted as an “authentic” country artist, given his roots and background.
“I’ve seen the criticisms — ‘Hey, how can this kid be singing these old songs?’” says Kyle “Triggerman” Coroneos, founder of the influential website Saving Country Music. “I say more power to him. That’s what country music needs — young people who are willing to bring this music to another generation.
“His voice is coming from somewhere else, almost like a ghost. People who make this music are strangers to this time, strangers to this environment. They’re lost souls. That’s why they sing this type of music — to feel more connected to things they identify with.”
In addition to Foley, Wall has been proselytizing on behalf of another late, lamented songwriter, Steve Young, who wrote “Seven Bridges Road.”
“I’ve been threatening to make a tribute album, make people aware of this guy,” Wall says. In the meantime, he’s making folks plenty aware of his own sky-high talent.
At Atwood’s Tavern, 877 Cambridge St., Cambridge, Oct. 27 at 10 p.m. and Oct. 29 at 9:15 p.m. Tickets $15, www.atwoodstavern.com