Buffalo Nichols Comes Home For The Blues – Texas Monthly
Carl “Buffalo” Nichols has the deep, methodical voice of a storyteller. He speaks in a low, even voice that doesn’t sound rushed, even though his sentences move invitingly, a trait that is reflected in the steady guitar picking and rolling vocals of his self-titled debut album, released in October. Last year, Nichols, 30, became the first solo blues artist to sign with Mississippi-based Fat Possum Records in nearly two decades. The label began in 1992 releasing music from revered artists such as Furry Lewis, RL Burnside and Townes Van Zandt, and more recently releasing folk music from contemporary artists like Weather Station and The Districts. Nichols’ album adds to the roots music archive released on the loyal label and dates back to its early days. His style carries the hallmarks of traditional American folk-blues – slippery acoustic guitar notes, sparse arrangements, simple rhythms – but his understanding of music draws on a rich set of influences spanning genres and continents.
Born in Houston, Nichols (now living in Austin) moved with his family at age one to Milwaukee, where he and his four siblings were raised by a single mother. He recalls that his interest in team sports waned around the age of ten and video games reached a point of boredom. On a whim, he bought his older sister’s acoustic guitar, an inexpensive catalog-bought Rogue dreadnought, and began to learn to play on his own. At thirteen, he would go to see live music in Milwaukee, experiences made possible by the city’s abundance of venues for all ages, which revealed to him a thriving artist community.
Although now a rising folk-blues performer, Nichols says, âMy first introduction to music as a culture and identity was punk. It grabbed the tail of the Midwestern punk and emo scene, which spanned the ’80s and’ 90s to the early ’90s and was built by bands like HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ and Sunny Day Real Estate. In a way, he was also experiencing his first contact with folk music. Leaving aside its stylistic markers, folk music in the broadest sense is any music that emerges from a community of people to adopt a distinct style, which Nichols witnessed in full bloom on the Milwaukee punk scene. He remembers “all the excitement around him – the band loading up, the stage and the lights.”
Although he watched punk in clubs, he filtered these experiences through his sister’s acoustic guitar at home. He also began exploring the recordings of legendary black musicians after discovering a CD copy of Martin Scorsese presents the blues, the soundtrack of the famous director’s PBS series The Blues. It will be years before Nichols dared to try and play some of the intricate guitar parts he heard, but he was trapped from the start. âThe Midwest has that tradition of blues – the Chicago blues, the Detroit thing – but I’ve always felt more connected to folk blues and delta blues,â says Nichols. He falls in love with the songs of Lightnin ‘Hopkins and Blind Lemon Jefferson, blues songwriters who, like him, were born in Texas. âIt’s something I’ve always kept in my back pocket out of pride,â he says.
Right after graduating from high school, Nichols responded to a Craigslist ad from a group of West African musicians looking for a guitarist. He joined their group, Jali Kunda, and befriended a wider circle of artists from Senegal, Mali and Guinea. Nichols quickly immersed himself in traditional African styles: griot music, wassoulou, and soukous, to name a few. Much of the music centers around an instrument called the kora, which has 21 strings and shares characteristics with the lute and harp. âWe were up until four in the morning, drinking tea and playing music,â recalls Nichols. Jali Kunda performed at street music festivals and music cafes, and Nichols sometimes played electric guitar to accompany another kora player named Yaya Kumbaye. While working odd jobs like washing dishes and working in auto garages, Nichols has spent just over half a decade devoting his guitar skills to West African music almost exclusively.
In 2011, Nichols’ Senegalese friends convinced him to take a trip home, a trip that turned out to be revealing. âI met their families and saw where they learned these habits, where music is not just a job or a career; it’s your social identity, âhe says. Once again, Nichols had been immersed in the midst of artists, informing his understanding of music not through radio or television, but through local connections and interactions. âThe way I was introduced to music, it was all supposed to be organic,â he explains.
Traveling through Eastern Europe a few years later, Nichols discovered the Ukrainian folk group DakhaBrakha, which modernized traditional Carpathian folk music to become fervent national and acclaimed popularity. For Nichols, it was a new contact with a living heritage of folk music. He began to think about how to take American roots music and translate it for modern audiences. âThere has to be a way to keep this folk tradition alive where it’s not too stuffy or out of date,â Nichols recalls, thinking to himself. This thought brought him back to the folk-blues he first heard in his youth and culminated with his debut studio album under the nickname Buffalo Nichols.
Throughout his experiences with West African music, or his immersions in punk and rock music, Nichols continued to listen to the blues, and returning there felt like coming home. âGetting into the blues, having so much of it just to live it, gave me a head start, and I think that’s why it worked,â he says. Characteristics of other styles from Nichols’ past do not emerge in the simple blues record he made, but the album showcases the skills he honed across genres: his excellent guitar playing. and his haunting voice, the strongest asset of the record.
“Well ever since I can remember I’ve been wandering on my own / I look lost and lonely ever since I left my mom’s house,” Nichols sings at the opening from “Lost and Lonesome”. Themes of wandering and disconnecting from family roots permeate decades of blues songs, from Bessie Smith’s âHomeless Bluesâ to John Lee Hooker’s âWandering Bluesâ. Nichols’ songwriting also frequently uses blues structures repeating lines in a verse before resolving to a final divergent line. “I’ve been on a long trip and I’m too weak to ride,” Nichols sings three times in rehearsal on “Sick Bed Blues,” before concluding, “Now there are a thousand people at my bedside.” The sick narrator seems to suffer more from emotional strain than from physical illness, as one doctor admits in the song: “He may get better, but he’ll never get better.”
Like punk, the blues is raw, expressive, and rooted in protest. On the album “Another Man”, Nichols joins the many blues musicians who have faced social and racial injustice, singing: “When my grandfather was young / He had to hold his tongue / Because they would hang you at a downtown bridge / Now they call it hold on / Another man is dead He took inspiration from “Another Man Done Gone”, a traditional song about prison labor farms, and wanted to draw a line direct connection between this story and contemporary police violence. Nichols thus follows in the footsteps of blues artists like Billie Holiday, whose “Strange Fruit” protested against the lynchings. Nichols wrote “Another Man” in 2016, shortly after Sylville Smith, a black man, was killed by police in Milwaukee, and the words came amid the unrest that followed. (This year, two police officers shot dead another black, Earl Dean Lawhorn, in the same neighborhood.)
Initially, Nichols did not want the song to appear on the record, as he felt that it did not significantly address the clear and obvious injustice in the world. “You can see this stuff happening in real life – why does singing about it mean anything more than that?” Nichols asks. Promoting the album meant talking a lot about “Another Man,” having to do the emotional work of explaining the breed to white listeners. He feels a certain ambivalence and exhaustion about it: âThe song was really for me and it was for black people, and now I have to talk about it all the time. . . . Having to explain and translate these ideas because 99% of the infrastructure is made by and for white people is what everyone needs to take a critical look at. “
Beyond the direct fight against social injustice in the lyrics, Nichols’ folk-blues is inherently an act of protest. At Billboardin the 2020 year-end rankings, none of the top folk or country artists were black; only two of the best blues artists were. Artists of color have always done blues, folk, and country music, and in recent years, they’ve struggled to be recognized as part of these genres. In this effort, Nichols joins Arlington country singer Mickey Guyton, blues-rock musician Brittany Howard and British songwriter Yola, to name a few.
This trend is a recovery of the musical styles that black Americans pioneered, starting with the Negro Spirituals, which morphed into blues and ultimately inspired rock and roll. âWhether it’s Americana, folk, country or blues, a lot of it comes from black American culture,â says Nichols. âIt was strategically and systematically taken from them. Nichols sees this change as modest progress at best, and insists there is still a lot of work to be done. He says, “The people who make the decisions that artists can express themselves on are always the same.”
In 2020, Nichols moved from Milwaukee to Austin to be closer to its management team and join a music scene indebted to roots music. Despite concerns about the rising cost of living in the city, he has always found a welcoming community of fellow artists. âPeople I know talk about this shrinking middle class of musicians,â he explains. “But it looks like Texas found a way to have a lot of levels for people to progress.” He adds that it’s rare for a community to have so many guitarists who have risen through the ranks in clubs to make a national name for themselves, citing Gary Clark Jr. and Leon Bridges as examples. With his own impressive debut, he may not be far behind.