Late in July 2021, word came that Chris Wall died of cancer. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that too few people knew his work in the first place. Outlets that covered the news refer to him as a “cult icon”, and that’s a fair assessment, but talent like his should transcend the cult. But in the end, that seems fitting for his kind of genius.
To label Wall, a throwback seems a bit too simple. His music was more than just “classic” or “old school” country music, phantasmic categories prized by nostalgists who are just alienated by contemporary country-pop. In reality, country music was never all that monolithic in style, making the quest for any “pure” version of the genre a fool’s errand. And Chris Wall would have been an outsider in any era, anyway. He was too much of an individualist to follow popular trends.
I first encountered his music on the “outlaw country” music channel my cable company provided with my TV. While cleaning the house one day, Wall’s ode to musical journeymen, “Five Piece Band”, came through my television speakers. I was hooked from the opening lyric: “I’m just pounding out the rhythm in a five-piece honky-tonk band / It’s a pretty good night / Not quite what I had planned / I drink the Shiner and the Pearl / Sing the Waylon and the Merle / We pick a little ‘Ramblin’ Man’.” The cleverness of the rhyme was brilliant, but so was the character Wall created with his typical understated genius.
Sturgill Simpson receives well-deserved credit for infusing country music with a broader artistic sensibility. This was also Chris Wall’s gift as a songwriting craftsman. His career was not as stylistically ambitious as Simpson’s, but the musical painting he did between his chosen lines was brilliant. He creates an epic backstory for the singer of “Five Piece Band” in four brilliant lines: “When I hit Texas I was Hell on fire / I had my face on the news I had my name on the wire / Then I fell to the ground with dull Shakespearean thud / Man I don’t mind the rain, but I sure hate the mud.” Only a special talent could produce the phrase “dull Shakespearean thud” and apply it seamlessly to a washed up hack musician. And as a singer, Wall’s gift was the deceptively simple ability to deliver such brilliant poetry with a plain-spoken, baritone honesty.
Wall’s art owes as much to poetry as it does to Hank Williams. And by poetry, I don’t mean just cowboy poetry (though that influence is powerful). Wall was as quick to reference Shakespeare as he was Lefty Frizzell. His song “The Poet Is Not in Today” captures the frustration of being a poet trapped in the body of a conventional country songwriter: “He’s tired of writing pretty words for pretty boys / Once made him feel like Cyrano / But now with every single lying rhyme he writes / His heart begins to feel a lot more like Pinocchio.” Songs like this capture both the talent of Wall’s songwriting along with the underlying reasons he would never find mainstream success. As a craftsman, Wall was committed to artistic integrity above all.
Wall’s career is a singular body of work by an educated working-class singer who could only really find a home in Texas and its idiosyncratic music scene. That scene was partially formed by Willie Nelson during his abandonment of Nashville, and it created a home for the artistically homeless — people like Chris Wall. One of those Texas legends, a caretaker of Luckenbach’s musical legend, Jerry Jeff Walker, was instrumental in discovering Wall and bringing him into the Texas scene.
Walker himself covered one of Wall’s masterpieces, “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight”. If he had only written that single song, Wall’s legacy as a brilliant songwriter would have been secured. Making full use of Wall’s vast artistic imagination, it’s a testament to the spare power of country music’s ability to document heartbreak. It’s a masterclass in lyrical form, and it places country music in an ongoing conversation with classical, jazz, and rock and roll. Its three verses, bridge, and chorus comprise nothing less than an Americana opera.
Wall’s last studio release, 2013’s El Western Motel, stands as a document of a great artist in complete control of his gifts. The minimalist production, featuring Wall, his guitar, and guest musicians Lloyd Maines and Cody Braun accompanying on fiddle and guitar, offers an acoustic intimacy. The album’s production leaves no distance between the listener and masterful balladeer.
Each song is a gem and, thematically, the album documents the last rides of men like Wall himself: the cattle ranch cowboy with no ranch to work anymore, the man who left his friends behind and longs for re-connection, jilted lovers, and aging musicians who have outlived their careers. “Silver Hair and Silver Wings” is a particularly powerful account of the latter, with typically brilliant lyrical flourishes that paint the picture: “In this man, there’s a heart / In this man, there’s a head / One ain’t all that smart / The other’s half-near dead.” The song exudes pathos for the artist that never got his due, either because of his failings or the ravages of time. Wall portrays his characters honestly, not ignoring their many faults, but always with sympathy. The result is a timeless work of art.
Upon hearing of his passing, I listened to that last album again. Then again. Its stripped-down brilliance is still powerful but freshly painful. One can’t listen to the great songs of El Western Motel without thinking of Chris Wall himself and the appreciation his work deserved but never received.
I listened to the title track (about a discarded ranch hand living out his twilight years between a motel and a bar) several times. I wept in awe at the lines following the death of the character (poignantly known only as “the guy down in 12”: “The Goodwill they came to sort through his stuff / A buckle, a saddle, and a Winchester pump / A picture of a girl, once torn apart / Taped back together and two purple hearts.” Here Wall takes a simple list of five objects and tells a story big enough to fill a novel. And when word reaches the bar, Wall tells us that his loser buddies toast him in unison, adding, brutally, “now he’s only remembered by those trying to forget.”
We should live in a world where artists like Chris Wall are more appreciated. Since we don’t, thankfully we have artists like Chris Wall to help us remember them. God speed, cowboy.