By Rick Schwertfeger
Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command, Austin, Texas
My wife, sons and I were swimming in Texas’ slow flowing Guadalupe River during the annual Kerrville Folk Festival on the morning after seeing a remarkable performance by Ian Tyson. The Canadian western singer/songwriter had blown away the traditional folkies with his show. Some hipped out young guy was swimming nearby, and we got to discussing the previous evening’s performances. All he could talk about was how he’d never heard of Ian, and how great a show he’d put on. “And that voice, what a voice!”
Hearing Canadian Colter Wall’s 2018 album Songs Of The Plains brought back that years-ago memory, because “that voice” is the first thing that hit me. Deep and harmonious, reviewer Blake Berglund calls it “a voice fifty years his senior.” And while Tyson’s and Corb Lund’s bodies of work emanate from their home bases in southern Alberta, Wall creates song pictures of lives on the nearby plains of southwestern Saskatchewan.
Wall establishes his roots in the opener, “Plain To See Plainsman,” stating that despite his far-flung travels, he’s a “homesick young plainsman.” Because “my heart it lies far from the east or west coast, the rustle of wheat fields start calling my name.” And befitting the broad, expansive, big empty plains he’s singing about, Wall’s spare album has a haunting, at times somber tone. The haunting comes through on Billy Don Burns’ “Wild Dogs,” an imagination of the lives of two feral male and female dogs bringing down a stag for food.
“It was the first blood we tasted together.”
We hear evocative images of them “running through the forest with the grace of an eagle;” and laying down listening “to the silence of the stars shooting across the universe for us to see.”
A somber mood underlies “Manitoba Man,” a drug pusher whose cocaine “leaves every limb singing for more.” The protagonist — a customer of the Manitoba Man — has “a good gal” who has stood by him and is “the light of my life.” But when “she tells me she’s dreaming of raising a son,” this footloose guy, unwilling to commit, decides, “I’ve been kicking my feet and wandering these streets for too long,” and that he “ought to be moving along.” Before he goes, he’ll make “one last stop,” as the Manitoba Man is waiting for him “behind the filling station.” It’s a tale of a guy whose life is “moving along,” but going nowhere.
There’s grit and stubborn pride in “Saskatchewan in 1881” as a Mennonite farmer stands up to the Toronto businessman who “got my wheat and canola seed — and you’re asking me for more.” “No eastern boy’s gonna twist my arm.” After telling him to “go away from my door,” he warns the Toronto Man, “You better fly ‘fore I produce my Forty-Four.” Then the threat of gun violence comes closer to being carried out in “John Beyers (Camaro song).” John Beyers shot up the protagonist’s 1969 Camaro — “he put two in the tires and one in the side.” The owner gets “a clean .22 and some shells,” and goes looking for Beyers. “He’s a fool if he thinks he can do this again, ’cause I’m crossing that track” and “ole John’s gonna pay.”
Two songs present opposite sides of cowboy life. We tend to see idyllic images, just out there horseback, herding cows. But in the traditional “Night Herding Song” a cowboy’s job is on the line. He’s trying to get the cows to bunch up and lay down. But they won’t. Struggling to keep them together, he confronts the reality that “My horse is leg-weary and I’m awful tired, but if I let you get away, I’m sure to get fired.” As a counterpoint, Wilf Carter’s “Calgary Round-Up” presents “a jolly bunch of cowboys” following the chuck wagon heading for the Calgary Stampede. (This must have been in the early 20th century, for the Stampede started in 1912.) Declaring that they “have no cares,” they invite the listener to “gather in our circle and we’ll sing this round-up song, headed for the Calgary Stampede.”
“Wild Bill Hickok” is a biography compressed into less than three minutes! Coming out of Illinois, Bill became “a dead shot with each hand.” While a stagecoach freighter, Bill unintentionally startled a bear, and had to kill it with his Bowie knife. Then “come 1861, Bill donned the Union blue,” as “not unlike his Daddy, he’d see no man in bonds.” Later, Texan Phil Coe thought the Abilene marshal “a cruel and brutish yankee,” and was “put down” by Bill. Finally, Hickok’s murder in Deadwood by “the coward Jack McCall” is recounted. Now I know more about Hickok than I did before!
“Songs of the Plains” concludes with Colter Wall’s upbeat take of “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail.”
It’s a fun rendition of the traditional tale of two drunk cowboys roping the Devil, branding and dehorning him, tying knots in his tail, then leaving him tied “up to a blackjack oak.” Blake Berglund and Corb Lund pitch in on the vocals. Wall makes a fine choice to finish up with some levity, breaking the predominately haunting, yet captivating feel of “Songs of the Plains.” For as Ian Tyson famously said of nearby Alberta, “those winds sure can blow cold way out there.”
© Rick Schwertfeger, Austin, Texas, 2019. Used by permission.