Chris Wall Cowboy Savior

 Everybody’s got a favorite artist, that one singer that cuts through the smoke and neon and gets at the soul (or some facsimile thereof) faster than Sally Mae’s bra can unsnap.  Seems these days that artist often sports a big name like McGraw or Chesney or Urban or something else slick and purty-sounding.  And I suppose that’s well and good for the soccer moms and the college kids and the drugstore cowboys and yuppies.  Maybe it’s what they need, and maybe what they’re hearing really does speak to them on some meaningful level.  I don’t know.  Don’t care.  Because a long damn time ago, through the direction of an Aggie girlfriend I shoulda married if I’d had half a brain in my skull, I ran across Chris Wall.  It was a winding road, I suppose.

Daddy had moved us out of Fort Worth when I was six, and I spent my childhood and teen years all the way up in Pennsylvania.  This was the ’70s and ’80s, and we were pretty damned serious Southern Baptists (Dad’s still a preacher, and still my hero for sticking to his heartfelt convictions, even if they’re not all in sync with my own).  So I got my history lessons running around on the fields of Gettysburg, and met my first ghosts one misty dawn sitting on the base of General Lee’s statue out there.  And I got my music, I thought, from church.  George Beverly Shea.  Steve Green.  Amy Grant.  Michael W. Smith.  Wayne Watson.  And Kenny Marks.  That guy, man, he kept the faith while putting sex- and its consequences- to some heartland rock ‘n roll.  Kenny’s stuff made sense to me, because it was real, and it smacked of convictions tested by failures and redeemed by grace.  And his musical style fed easily into Mellencamp and Springsteen.  Then I got into the lyrics those two were unleashing, and the light dawned, and I thought, dang me, this music stuff can serve more purposes than I thought.  So I went back to my childhood favorites, the old stack of 45’s Dad had squirreled away in the attic, and I dug ’em back out.  What’d I find?  Johnny Horton.  Jimmie Rodgers.  Marty Robbins.  Johnny Cash.  Every one of ’em resonated.  And then high school ended, and college brought me back to my beloved Texas, and I promptly told everyone I knew that I hated country music, always had, and always would.  I didn’t know those guys on the 45s were country or anything else.  Hell, I didn’t really grasp the concept of”genre’ in any real sense.  I just liked to rock.  The hard stuff.  You know, Poison.  Yeah.  I was tough.

Thankfully the years fell away, and after graduation one night I ran into a blond vision in a smoke-filled bar.  Countless dances and a couple of years later, we ended, and I’ll always regret it.  But before I screwed things up, Steph got me listening to some guy I’d never heard of named Jerry Jeff Walker.  And reading his liner notes, I noticed that most of my favorite songs were written by a guy named Chris Wall.  Beat the fuckall outta me who he was, only Chris I knew was LeDoux.  But I went and found a CD called Cowboy Nation that Wall had put out.  And it changed my life forever.  This was music.  No flashpots, no big hair, no spandex.  But I could smell the sawdust and the sweat and the cigarettes and the perfume, and I could hear the wind in the pines and feel the first kiss of snow on the edge of the norther blowing in.

When I started out in this Cowboy Nation/I signed on for the whole duration/I ain’t changin’/They’ll drag me out when I go

It sounds silly now, even to me all these years and miles later, but the plain fact is my whole world tilted on its axis before that record finished playing.  I mean, by this point in my life I knew Merle and I loved Waylon and Willie and David Allan and I’d found a new crop of Texas songwriters like Brian Burns and Tommy Alverson and Mark David Manders.  I knew there was good stuff all around.  Hell, Brian was and still is a hero of mine, and the rare hero I’m fortunate to call a friend.  But this stuff Chris was writing, man, it reverberated down deep in places my soul didn’t know it had.  Mom had gone on to heaven already, most likely to tidy the place up in anticipation of the mess she figured I’d make whenever I showed up.  And I thought nobody else had even a glimpse of the painful void that left me with down here on the fucking mortal plane.  Then Chris started singing.

Lately I been thinkin’/I just might quit drinking/But now I don’t know all in all/I just might stay home/Get drunk all alone/And punch a few holes in the wall

And when I’m real high I play rock and roll/I play country when I’m losing control/I don’t play Chuck Berry/Quite as much as I’d like/And I feel like Hank Williams tonight

Christ, this guy gets it, I remember thinking.  Amazing that I remember anything from the Jack Daniels haze that covered those years in gossamer chains, but I sure as hell remember that.  And for just a couple of minutes I didn’t feel all alone anymore.  It’s where the me I’d used to be started to reawaken.  And all because some sorry old picker tried to figure where it all went wrong.  Thank God he did.

Didn’t take me long to find out more about Chris Wall.  Caught him and the band at the White Elephant Saloon in Fort Worth one night, and bought a copy of the Any Saturday Night in Texas live recording.  Three tracks in I was lost in the movie theatre in my mind, while Chris was singing about a hero of his own:

Uncle Bill was a straight-edge razor man/He saw it as a test of will/And the skill in a steady hand/And the slip and the slap of a blade on a strap/Gave rhythm to my life/Can you hear the swish of the brush in the dish/And the click of a pocketknife?

Simple cowboy poetry set to simple guitar pickin’, the universe ensnared in verse and bursting with impossibly simple beauty.  Felt for a moment like Coe was singing”Old Man Tell Me,” but no, the sadness from that song wasn’t present.  There were hints of longing and wistfulness in Chris’ tune, but no real sadness, not the defeating kind.  Just admiration for a man who knew what it meant to be a man and lived his life accordingly.  Lord, I thought, how did I make my twenties without ever hearing of this guy?  I wound up reviewing that record for a webzine I used to scribe for, Rockzilla.net, and that review led to my meeting Chris one Christmas at a Brian Burns CD release party in Arlington, Texas.   I’d been relocated to Charlotte, NC, with my job at the time, and had come home specifically to attend Brian’s gig.  The chance meeting with Chris resulted in his last CD, Just Another Place, making its way to mailbox out in the provinces.  One cold rainy evening I got back from work to find the kids and the wife in bed and a brand new Chris Wall record on the kitchen table.  It opened with a heartfelt jab at the Nashville songwriting machine, seen from the insider’s point of view after the assembly line requirements have dimmed the fire in his soul.  And then the second track smacked me across the face with these lines:

When you love somebody/And they do not love you/There are but two things/One can do/You can play the friend game/And die a little every day/Or do the John Wayne/And walk away

That wife in the other room?  Yeah, we weren’t exactly friends.  And suddenly here was an option.  But out there in the Carolina hills, well, I opted to keep playing the friend game.  And sure as shit, I died a little more every day.  We made it back to Texas as a family for the following Christmas, and by December 28th she and the kids were at her mom’s and I had Chris Wall cranked up loud.  That same song came on again while I was on the couch thinking hard about the pistol in the closet and a quick and painless exit.  John Wayne?  Walk away?  Dammit.  No quittin’ allowed.  Chris Wall saved my life that night, and he wasn’t even anywhere around.  But sure as hell, without him, I ain’t here.  Told him as much when I saw him, again at the White Elephant, not long at all after.  And between us and some Jack Daniel’s and some good music it was sort of alright for awhile.  Took a few more years for the marriage to finally and fully end, and when it did, well, it was all Chris all the time again.  This go-round the Tainted Angel CD got the most play, and once again, the world changed.  Focus shifted, the ephemeral solidified, and a hellbent-for-leather optimism re-emerged.  The tune that made the most sense?  Easy.  Tainted Angel.  Think Chris had a woman in mind when he wrote it, but for me, this one’s a love song to my own battered soul:

Morning light through linen curtain

Chase that mean old night away

I’d rather face the great uncertain

In the cold blue light of day

I’ve taken up to speak with Jesus

Damn sure every single night

My mind’s become some tangled jungle

I dare not go there without a guide

So ride along, my tainted angel

We got towns up ahead we’ve yet to paint

I swear I’ll get you where you think you’re goin’

But St. Christopher I ain’t

In some sad old neon motel

There’s a Bible in the drawer

I watch you so serenely sleeping

As I drink and pace the floor

Oh was it Matthew, or was it Luke?

It wasn’t Gandhi, I’ll bet it was the Duke

Don’t let ’em see you apologize

They’ll read the weakness in your eyes

So ride along, my tainted angel

We’ve got towns up ahead we’ve yet to paint

I swear I’ll get you where you think you’re goin’

But St. Christopher I ain’t

It’s been a cold and brutal journey

That some say I’ve weathered well

I feel so hollow on the inside

I’m just glad you like the shell

So ride along, my tainted angel

We’ve got towns up ahead we’ve yet to paint

I swear I’ll get you where you think you’re goin’

But St. Christopher I ain’t

No, St. Christopher I ain’t

So there you have it.  Why’s Chris Wall my favorite artist?  Because like no one else I’ve found, he cuts through the crap and the bullshit in a clear-eyed Josey Wales sort of way and stares down what’s coming.  He might lose, or he might win, but the one thing he won’t do is cut and run.  Some might say there’s a lot of Gus and Call in Chris’ music, and they’d be right.  But there’s a lot more of Charlie Goodnight and Oliver Loving and John B. Armstrong and Jim Shoulders.  In much the same way I find it difficult these days to maintain my faith while avoiding religion, it can be a daunting challenge to find relevance for the outlaw spirit and the simplicity of a homespun cowboy life.  The digital age, and a society where Paris Hilton can be famous, just don’t seem to have time for the truer, simpler things.  But Chris Wall always has, and his music’s always there.  I hope your trail leads you to his door at some point, and I trust your horses will find the same good water and soft grass mine have come to depend upon.

~Dave Pilot

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Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs.  When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline.  When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas.

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