Love it or hate it, unless you’ve lived under a rock for most of your life, you’ve probably been exposed to some good old fashioned Country & Western music. Falling into the “Gen-X” brigade, I was raised in a household with quite a devoted following of this particular genre – music appreciated at an early age, shunned during my teens because it was no longer cool, and finally returned to later in life when realizing just how influential and timeless some of this music happens to be. Whether hearing the Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers records played by my mother, or the John Denver albums favored by my brother, the constant exposure to country music from the 1960s and 1970s remains with me to this very day.
Some of these classics are permanently etched into my DNA, it seems, given that I cannot help but smile and recall fond childhood memories each time I hear the likes of “El Paso” (Marty Robbins), “A Boy Named Sue” (Johnny Cash) or “Streets Of Bakersfield” (Buck Owens). And even several decades after their release, they still sound great – timeless masterpieces from a genre often overlooked, ridiculed (okay, yodelers may have brought that upon themselves), or flat-out ignored.
Fortunately, I do not appear to be alone holding this music in such high regard, given the countless resurgences over the years thanks to the generations of artists that have followed – from Prairie Oyster, Dwight Yoakam, and Junior Brown, to more recent pioneers such as Petunia & The Vipers, Del Barber, and Corb Lund. So imagine my delight in not only finding two brand new Country & Western albums released this summer, but also in witnessing the passing of the torch to the next generation of artists keeping this classic genre alive.
Released on August 28th, via La Honda Records, “Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs,” is the latest release from Swift Current, SK native Colter Wall, a trailblazer who burst onto the North American music scene just a few years ago, but has very quickly earned a healthy following within the traditional country music community and beyond. We are often advised to “not believe the hype,” when it comes to media touted new talent, but when Colter Wall announced a stop in PA as part of his US tour last year, wild horses would not have kept us from experiencing his music and live show firsthand, eager to take that sentimental trip down memory lane. Following in the (pretty huge) footsteps of his highly-acclaimed “Songs of the Plains” album from 2018, Colter’s latest release features a 50/50 mix of original material and cover versions of both popular and traditional classic country songs. “These songs are punchier than I am,” he recently shared.
The title track, his self-penned “Western Swing & Waltzes,” was debuted on Colter’s last Austin City Limits appearance, and one we were fortunate to hear ‘road-tested’ last year at The Ardmore Music Hall just outside Philadelphia; a night that would also feature some outstanding covers of the traditional “I Ride An Old Paint” and the Eddy Arnold hit “Cowpoke,” which both made the cut for this album too.
As an artist, Colter is a weathered baritone that spins narratives on the stage, singing traditional tracks known to most, historic reverie, and poignant originals, offering a nostalgic atmosphere and colorful experience for those in the room. So it seems fitting that the inclusion of his hand-selected classics here, such as a stunning interpretation of the Marty Robbins hit, “Big Iron,” are cast perfectly alongside his own originals, which ooze also with that old country charm and familiarity.
Self-produced and recorded at Yellow Dog Studios just outside Austin, TX, Colter Wall was determined to make this album on his own terms – a decision that diversified and put some giddy-up in the album’s sound – and with his own band of outstanding musicians that accompanied Wall on that Ardmore stage: Patrick Lyons (pedal steel/dobro/mandolin/baritone guitar), Jake ‘The Snake’ Groves (harmonica), Jason Simpson (bass) and Aaron Goodrich (percussion). Other guests include Doug Moreland (fiddle), Emily Grimble (piano), and Neil Emerson (backing vocals), rounding out these studio sessions.
The best credit award has to go to fellow SK artist and friend, Blake Berglund, for his creaky screen door contribution during “Talkin’ Prairie Boy,” a track that pokes a little harmless fun at the city slicker kid looking to fall in with Wall’s ‘real’ cowboy crew: “Some dude overheard from across the room / Instead of minding his own he’d just as soon / Sit down next to us and join in on the conversation / Brought over some kinda beer / Something called I-P-A / East Nashville kid in a cowboy hat / Couldn’t tell a shoe lace from a lariat / And the furthest west he’d ever been is Ohio.” This album definitely packs a punch, from an artist who has clearly found his stride.
Rewind back to early 2018, where we discovered the music of Sean Burns & Lost Country, a traditional country and western band from Winnipeg, MB who had just released their “Music For Taverns, Bars and Honky Tonks album.” Inspired by legends such as Ray Price, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, Sean’s interpretation of this genre taps perfectly into the sound and vibe of country music’s golden era, without sounding forced or cliched.
Returning to the present, Sean Burns & Lost Country released their latest album, “We Gotta Lotta Truckin’ To Do,” on September 4th, via String Breakin’ Records, and distributed through their Bandcamp page. Upon receiving this album recently, my eyes lit up with thoughts once again of my childhood past – how could we forget about truck driving songs and tales of eighteen wheelers traveling coast to coast across the continent? A movement that almost became a genre in its own right thanks in part to the popularity of C. W. McCall’s radio hit, “Convoy,” and Sam Peckinpah’s truck-centric western movie that followed (ironically casting outlaw country singer Kris Kristofferson as the lead character, Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald, alongside Hollywood star, Ali MacGraw).
Recorded at The Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club in Winnipeg over two consecutive days in July, Sean Burns and his band once again whisk their listeners away to the heyday of old-school country music. It doesn’t matter if your country music tastes were found in the bars on Broadway in Music City, while two-stepping in the honky-tonks of Texas, or swing dancing to the Bakersfield Sound of the West Coast, Sean Burns has got plenty of tunes to remind you of those golden days.
With this latest collection, Burns chooses to dish up a 13-track serving of some of the finest truck driving ditties from the country music archives (and includes a self-penned track, “Joseph Hill”). “Truck-Driving Country sits firmly on the fringe of sub-genres…it’s a timeless sound, committed to social memory by the leaders of the genre, like Dave Dudley and Red Simpson,” Sean offers. “In the same way that ketchup and mustard can live together on a sesame seed bun, so do stories of the long haul coupled with a straight ahead driving groove – often metaphors for dealing with life’s hurdles.”
Self-produced by Sean Burns & Lost Country, mixed/mastered by Scott Franchuk (Mike Plume, Del Barber), and engineered by Jamie Sitar (William Prince, The New Customs), the concept of this album immediately prompts memories of a similar release, “Keep On Truckin’,” an old 45 my family owned in the early 1980s featuring a similar collection of tunes. I recall hearing my first version of Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road” from that album – coincidentally covered by Canadian artist Hank Snow (also rejuvenated in the late 90s by US band Sawyer Brown) – and happens to be Sean’s lead track for his own compilation of trucking songs. “Well I pulled out of Pittsburgh rollin’ down that Eastern seaboard / I got my diesel wound up and she’s a running like never before / There’s a speed zone ahead that’s all right / I don’t see a cop in sight / Six days on the road and I’m gonna make it home tonight.” Hey, we’re from PA, so of course we’re gonna throw in that reference to our own Steel City.
Across this album, Sean Burns is happy to resurrect some classic truck driving songs from the 1960s. From Vernon Oxford’s 1968 hit, “Roll Big Wheels Roll,” (written by Paul Williams), to “My Baby’s Waitin’,” the 1966 collaboration between Buck Owens and Red Simpson, fans of this era will not be disappointed. “Give me forty acres and I’ll turn this rig around / It’s the easiest way that I’ve found,” the band deliver, cranking out a slick cover of “Give Me Forty Acres,” the Willis Brothers hit from 1964. “Some guys can turn it on a dime or turn it right down town / But I need forty acres to turn this rig around.” “It’s a lonely road, no doubt, and while I do not possess a Class 1 license nor the prowess to sit behind the big wheel, I can relate to the struggles and sentiments expressed in these songs,” Sean adds. “I do not understand all of the colloquial trucker slang and references in these songs – and that’s part of what draws me to the genre. It’s nice, and it probably isn’t for you, but one thing’s for certain and it’s that We Gotta Lotta Truckin’ To Do.”
Through these new releases, both Colter Wall and Sean Burns demonstrate that traditional country music lives and breathes here today. While mainstream country music fads often change at the drop of a hat (I’ll take the short-lived mid-90s resurgence over anything offered this century), the lure and charm of pure country music shall always stay with me – I’ve been spinning music from Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins lately, for no reason other than just wanting to enjoy them once more. Old country music just seems to know when it needs to be heard, never failing to hit your senses at just the right time. Case in point – as I was organizing my thoughts and notes for this article, another brand new classic country number emanated from the radio airwaves. “I Think You Oughta Try Whiskey” is a tongue-in-cheek back and forth duet from Corb Lund (Taber, AB) and Jaida Dreyer (Thunder Bay, ON) that reminds me of some of those great Johnny Cash and June Carter collaborations. “Well, I think you oughta try whiskey babe / Well, I think you oughta try gin / Well, gin sounds kind of risky baby / Ah, but whiskey makes me cringe / Yeah, but whiskey makes you frisky babe / Oh, much to my chagrin / I think you oughta try whiskey babe / Well, I think you oughta try gin.” Like I said, classic country music is alive and well – so saddle up, buckle up, or whatever – just enjoy the ride.