Colter Wall: The Holes Are All That’s Real

Colter Wall, in Liberty, Kentucky. Photo by Melissa Stilwell

Colter Wall is sitting on a porch swing in Liberty, Kentucky, explaining the origins of “Me And Big Dave,” a harrowing song on his new self-titled debut album. “Some night me and Dave” — meaning David Lindsey, a singer-songwriter based in nearby Bowling Green — “would go out on a tear and terrorize people around town and make fools of ourselves, because that’s what you do with your buddies.” Very few buddies, however, commemorate such escapades in songs, however, and fewer still do it in dusty cowboy laments that sound like they’ve been haunting honky tonks for decades.

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Wall, who was born in the wilds of Canada but is now based in the Bluegrass State, speaks in an affable tone that barely hints at the word-weary basso profondo that colors his songs. He’s clad head to toe in denim, his shirtsleeves rolled up to reveal a revolver tattoo on his forearms. He sports a CB-themed belt buckle as big as a dinner plate. His jeans look slept in, and his boots look like he’s walked every mile between the nonstop gigs he’s been playing for the year.

Today, just a few days after the Fourth of July, he’s taking a breather at the home of Allen and Rosemary Sparr, the parents of his manager. They treat Wall and his band like family. In the hallway of their home hang several photos of their daughter’s client, including one of him onstage at the Ryman Auditorium, from the night he opened for Lucinda Williams. Last night seemingly half the population of Liberty showed up for a vast potluck dinner of pulled pork, taco salad, baked beans, homemade sausage balls, ham and cheese sliders, and Kentucky Derby pie. This morning most everybody returns for a brunch of homemade buttermilk biscuits, hash browns, sausage, bacon, and whatever remains from the night before.

Wall sips from a cup of strong black coffee, lights another Marlboro, and recalls an eventful night that he and Big Dave can barely remember. “We had one particular night that was real rough. We stayed up a little too late and I woke up the next day — I don’t know if it was the next day or the day after that — and wrote this song about just getting fucked up with Big Dave.” The song is, of course, about more than that. It might start with two small-time outlaws “chasing white lines and warping our minds,” but it ends somewhere more mystical, as Wall plumbs the motivations for their self-destructive behavior: “This whole world is full of ghosts I believe most folks can’t see, the particular demons that reason with Big Dave and me.”

“The song turned into a character study of people who have a certain attitude about them, people like Big Dave, I guess — people who are born with a chip on their shoulder. Outcasts, misfits, people in towns that you hear bad things about from other people. I remember I wanted it to sound like something that could be on a Billy Joe Shaver record or on Honkytonk Heroes.

As if on cue, Big Dave himself walks out onto the back porch. A gregarious fellow who lives up to his nickname, he has sandy blonde hair down to his shoulders, a soul patch framing his face, and a cup of coffee in his hand. I ask him about the song that immortalizes him.

“Just tell him a bunch of lies, Dave,” Wall interrupts with a chuckle.

“Man, I like Colter,” says Big Dave, who might be lying but probably isn’t. “When I first met him, I knew he was a talented kid. Well, I shouldn’t say kid. He’s a grown-ass man.” Dave takes a seat on the porch swing and relates a story similar to the one Wall just spun, a story about a night neither can recall in much detail. “I remember that night because me and Colter sat on my front porch and we talked about everything. We got into some real deep conversation about life and what he says in the song, the ghost most people can’t see. He told me that he woke up the next morning and wrote that song, that it started out being funny, but ending up being very philosophical.”

Big Dave is a member of what might be considered a loose entourage, a group of associates and acquaintances who hang out with Wall whenever he’s in Kentucky and occasionally hit the road with him: band members, fellow singer-songwriters, friends of friends, his manager Mary Sparr, and assorted people whose roles are largely undefined, like Travis Blankenship, a.k.a. the Kentucky poet mentioned in “Me and Big Dave.”

“You know the old saying, Surround yourself with good people and good things happen?” says Big Dave, gesturing toward a small clutch of people smoking in a corner of the Sparrs’ sprawling backyard. “This is my family. I don’t have many people that I trust very much, but trust these people. Colter is a brother to me.”

As Big Dave returns to the kitchen for another round of biscuits and gravy, Wall lights another Marlboro and explains his fondness for this community so far from the music mainstream. Kentucky “is the first place I really came to in this country where I met a lot of people and made a lot of close friends very quickly. So I feel like I have this connection to Kentucky and the folks here. It’s starting to feel like a second home to me. It’s home to a lot of really wonderful songwriters and musicians that most people maybe aren’t aware of, but they’re creating good music and trying to do things the right way. I’ve been too busy to get my own place, but I’m hoping in the future to set up some roots around here.”

Colter Wall has come a long way, both professionally and geographically, to get to Liberty. He was born a continent away in Swift Current, a small city in Saskatchewan, Canada, several hundred miles north of Montana. His parents were country fans, so he grew up listening to the outlaw greats: Willie and Johnny, Merle and Waylon. As a teenager, he immersed himself in blues and folk music, digging deep into the work of Lead Belly and Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and Woody Guthrie. “Because of the way I am, I get really obsessive about music that I decide I like, that I decide I care about. So I did a bunch of research and that’s how I got educated on the folk side of things. I made myself go down the rabbit hole.”

Wall learned to play guitar and write songs, eventually “faking my way through” college in the big city of Saskatoon. Still, it was no place to launch a career. “I love where I’m from and I love Canada,” he says. “But it’s difficult to make a living there, especially if music is your only gig. It’s a very small market, and everything’s so spread out. It’s a huge country, and the folks that do live there are spread out across a lot of land, so you have to cover a lot of ground if you want to tour.” By contrast, Bowling Green is just a short drive from Nashville and only a little further from St. Louis and Chicago, which makes it a good headquarters from which to launch tours.

Before Wall left Canada for Kentucky, however, he recorded an EP called Imaginary Appalachia, a rough-and-tumble collection of folk-country tunes that translate the music of the eastern United States to the plains of Saskatchewan. The title implies a certain geographic remove from that region, although the music ingeniously bridges that gap. “Where you come from has a lot to do with what it is you are, who it is you are,” he says. “Where I grew up has a lot to do with why I am the way I am.”

Imaginary Appalachia barely had any press behind it, even less distribution, yet it still managed to attract a large audience, who took it upon themselves to promote the album in true grassroots fashion. Brock Lesnar, a Canadian pro wrestler and mixed martial artist, plugged the EP to his fans on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast, testifying, “He grabbed me from the very first time I listened to his record, and I haven’t let go of it since. I’ve been listening to it every single day.” And W.B. Wheeler, a West Virginia train conductor, plugged the record for several weeks on his Old Soul Radio Show. Shooter Jennings is a big fan, as are Lucinda Williams and Margo Price. “I was lucky to have people like that — people I don’t even know that well who believed in what I was doing and wanted to share it. They made it their mission to help me, so we were able to get the record into some pretty weird places, and some cool opportunities came up as a result of that.”

Eventually Imaginary Appalachia caught the ears of Dave Cobb, who has become one of the busiest and most popular producers in Nashville with a string of credits on albums by Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Lori McKenna, and Sturgill Simpson. As Wall tells it, the Imaginary Appalachia EP was “thrown at him by a few folks, a few mutual friends who wanted to help me out.” His interest piqued, Cobb contacted Wall to arrange a meeting and eventually agreed to produce Wall’s first full-length.

Even before he trekked down to Nashville to record with Cobb, Wall knew he wanted to keep the album spare, both musically and lyrically. Most of Colter Wall is just the man and his guitar, although there are occasional flourishes of pedal steel and drums. His lyrics are equally austere, each a full novel pared down to its most telling scene. On opener “Thirteen Silver Dollars,” Wall is roused from an alcoholic stupor by a Mountie; he doesn’t say how he got there or where he goes next. When he’s asked who he is, Wall responds, “I just looked him in the eye and sang ‘Blue Yodel Number 9.’ He didn’t catch the reference, I could tell.” “At its core songwriting is just telling a good story. The best songs just sound like something you’d hear somebody say, a story they’d tell you. So writing a song is sometimes not so much about how much information you can fit into one line, but rather what you choose to leave out. It’s about the holes.”

Leaving some of the gorier or sadder details to the listener’s imagination, that less-is-much-more approach allows Wall to circumvent certain country conventions. The plot of “Kate McCannon” is fairly straightforward: man marries a beautiful woman, works his fingers to the bones, finds her with another man, shoots them both. But Wall reorders the narrative, opening with the killer in prison to lament his choices and relate the tale as a death-row confession, which underscores the immorality of the act in a genre that too often revels in violence against women. “I’ve gotten some flak for that song,” Wall admits. “But I wasn’t looking to glorify that kind of violence or that kind of story. It’s a weird thing to reapproach that tradition. I don’t think I was trying to reinvent the murder ballad or anything like that, but at the same time, that’s one of the great things about songwriting: Everybody writes their own stuff differently. I try to put my own spin on everything I do, but it was especially interesting to find a way to approach some of the themes in that tradition.”

Wall already has his next record planned out and is writing songs that may show up on the record after that, but for now he’s touring almost constantly, with his entourage in tow. “It creeps up on you, what exactly you’re doing in the process of making a record and going on tour. You take a moment to realize: Man, these are my songs, and they’re going out in the world and they have my name on them. That to me seems like a pretty amazing thing to do with your life.”

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