Buffalo Nichols: Beyond the Blues
Confronting harsh realities with hard truths, singer / guitarist offers an invitation to reset musical preconceptions
By Doug Freeman, Fri., March 25, 2022
Buffalo Nichols takes the stage alone at the Scoot Inn and doesn't say a word. In fact, he doesn't even acknowledge the sold-out crowd at all. Bundled in a Bane sweatshirt and heavy stocking cap in the slight February chill, he silently picks up his resonator guitar and lets it do the talking.
It's an intense, extraordinary set. His voice scars with gruff tenderness, a raw weariness fused with burning fury. Nichols' fingers work over the guitar with an unsettling fluidity, at times erupting a sound so big that, eyes closed, you would swear he had a full band backing. The songs anchor in the blues, but expand out with an ambient, almost psychedelic wash, and fold in touches of world influences, from West African and Middle Eastern rhythms to Eastern European folk-jazz. Traditions run parallel and then weave intoxicatingly together, while Nichols sings beat down ("Lost & Lonesome") and biting ("Living Hell," "Another Man").
What Nichols offers is an invitation, but he doesn't make it easy. He knows the crowd, packed into the Scoot's backyard for headliner Houndmouth, isn't his crowd. He's focused on being heard but doesn't have the patience to court those not willing to listen.
Never once does the artist even mention his name.
"I was annoyed, and I just didn't feel like putting on a fake smile," he offers of the show a few weeks later, sitting on the front porch of Hank's off of Berkman. "I just sort of lean into the emotion, and sometimes I just feel like being dramatic. Sometimes I'm trying to be like a stand-up comedian up there and just having fun, but sometimes something will bother me and I'm like, 'I'm just not going to do it.' Which to me, I'm just trying to put on a show one way or the other. If I feel good, I'm going to share that, and if I'm not feeling good, I'm going to share that, too, and just try to be as honest as I can.
"With maybe a little bit of exaggeration," he adds with a slightly wry smile.
Carl Nichols doesn't even really seem to want to sit down for this interview. Born in Houston and raised in Milwaukee, the 30-year-old songwriter has kept a relatively low profile since moving to Austin over a year ago. He admits it's partly just his more introverted personality ("I don't really get out much, anyway") coupled, of course, with the pandemic. But there's also a sense of Nichols just trying to carve out a place for himself in the world, both physically and creatively, and feeling justifiably tired of the effort to be authentically heard.
He carries himself with assured confidence, and doesn't shy away from hard and important conversations. He's thoughtful and frank, but also seems wary and never fully comfortable at the table.
The hesitancy is understandable. Nichols has become – unintentionally, if willingly – a leading voice in reclaiming the blues as Black culture from its longtime white-bread blues-rock mainstreaming. A Rolling Stone article last month cast Nichols at the forefront of this effort, not only because he's building on the blues in unique and provocative ways, but precisely because he is so unflinchingly direct and clear in talking about the problems of the genre.
"I get more attention now for my opinions than my music," he sighs as our conversation bends in that direction. "On one hand, if I would just keep my mouth shut and do what was expected of me, my career would probably be a lot easier. But I'm totally comfortable playing to 50 people who are all open-minded and diverse, [rather] than just being one of the many blues artists who remain opinionless and are rewarded for it. So as much as I get tired of the conversations, I realize they serve a purpose.
"I'm not afraid to ruffle some feathers if I know people are listening to me," he continues. "I really feel like what do you have to lose, and if you say nothing, then you don't deserve to have anybody's attention. I don't know if anything I do is going to influence anybody, but I know for a fact it won't if I don't try. I think artists are in denial about how much influence they have."
Nichols suffers neither illusions nor fools. Austin itself sits at the crux of this problematic dynamic, a town that can simultaneously revere Stevie Ray Vaughan and produce artists like Gary Clark Jr. and Jackie Venson, who both embrace and explode the notion of the blues in their music. Layered on top of Austin's deeply segregated history and contemporary racial challenges, the blues becomes a boiler for digesting the city's tensions socially and culturally.
As necessary as those discussions are, putting them on Nichols isn't fair either. In fact, he's ambivalent about the labels and expectations of being a blues artist altogether.
"I didn't want to be called a blues artist," he says. "As a fan, and to a certain extent as an artist, I'd seen what it means to attach that to yourself. And it's disgusting. It's just not creative, it's not inclusive, it's not diverse – it's not even good most of the time.
"But I've been leaning into it because I'm already in it, so I'm trying to see what I can do with it," he continues. "The blues to me means a lot culturally, but commercially as far as the world of blues festivals and labels, that doesn't interest me at all. The genres exist for selling music and writing about music, but the people that make it and listen to it don't care what you call it. It doesn't have to fit neatly in a box. So I was really hesitant to call myself a blues artist because I knew the baggage. Now I'm still very reluctant, but I'm trying to be proud of it."
Nichols' eponymous debut album, released last year, nonetheless marketed heavily to his blues bona fides. Fat Possum touted its first solo blues artist signing in nearly two decades, and the album, made mostly from demos, undeniably digs deep into a traditional acoustic blues sound as a vehicle for confronting harsh realities with hard truths.
Yet seeing Nichols live, you realize he's on an entirely different trip – although blues may serve as the bedrock, the world on top of it bursts in myriad directions. The past decade of traveling everywhere from West Africa to Ukraine, his previous Americana-rooted duo Nickel & Rose with upright bassist Johanna Rose, and his early days in the Midwest punk and hardcore scenes serve just as influential for him.
"I am trying to do something different, and traveling outside of America was a big part of that," he acknowledges. "The American music industry, and it's a global thing, but especially in America, it's very rigid. A lot of artists I look up to and respect, they have to do one or two genred albums before they are given permission to do what they want to do. I think a great example is someone like Leon Bridges, who's doing all kinds of different stuff, but I don't think they would have let him do it out of the gate. He had to give them the classic soul album."
Nichols finds himself trying to navigate and leverage a genre-defined industry, yet not be confined by it. It's a position he's been in before. Nickel & Rose garnered attention in the equally fraught folk scene with their 2018 song "Americana," which called out the hypocrisies of the genre's gestures toward inclusivity and the realities of its overwhelmingly white hegemony.
The blues offers its own taut wire to walk, where expectations of the sound are already complicated by generations of appropriation and exploitation. Nichols can rip traditional riffs, but as an artist he's more interested in genre transformation than traditional reclamation – it's just that the latter becomes a necessary component to opening the door for the former.
"I use the guitar as a tool, but even when I was in my teens I was really interested in electronic music and hip-hop on the production side," he says. "I never fully gave up on that and am always messing around with it. Especially during the pandemic, I kind of got tired of songs and lyrics, so I really dove into ambient music, the idea of the physical aspects of sonics. There's a meditative quality to sound. When you can feel the music, it just enters your brain in a different way, so I'm trying to explore that.
"Leaning into the idea of being a blues musician kind of keeps me rooted, and then I can go in all these different directions knowing that I can just use the blues to keep me from going too far out there," he adds. "And you think about every era of the blues, and what changes and defines it is the technology. The difference between Son House and Muddy Waters is moving to Chicago and plugging in. So I don't think the genre has to be limited by what it was in 1930. Really it's just me exploring technology."
So the invitation that Nichols offers onstage is to reset your preconceptions of the blues, and then let them go altogether. It is, in fact, precisely what he's trying to do himself, with his music and within the industry. But he never promised to make it easy.
Buffalo Nichols plays at Stateside at the Paramount on Wednesday, March 30, with Little Mazarn.