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Buffalo Nichols is Bringing Traditional Blues into the Future

Photo Credit: Elixir Strings

“My goal is to build a new context around the blues,” says Carl “Buffalo” Nichols, and that’s precisely what the Texas-based musician is doing. His 2021 self-titled debut, Buffalo Nichols, saw him draw deep from the country-folk blues tradition, with his songwriting anchored around his raw, expressive vocals and deftly fingerpicked, acoustic-based instrumental accompaniment. His new follow-up, the excellent The Fatalist, continues in this vein, but with a heavier focus on modern embellishments, including samples, drum machines and synthesizers, that contemporize the traditional style for a new generation of listeners. 

It’s a distinct approach that, says Nichols, stands in contrast to how he commonly sees the blues interpreted currently, which is as a purely throwback style or merely a framework for guitar and vocal histrionics. “As far as where I’m at right now, I think it’s fine that people can play the blues in restaurants and on cruise ships,” Nichols says. “But I would like to be part of the generation and the community that brings the blues to people who have a different appreciation for it, and that brings some life back into the music.” SPIN caught up with Nichols to discuss his unique path to discovering and playing this traditional style, and how he intends to bring it into the future.

SPIN: You’ve played many different styles of music throughout your career. What led you to acoustic blues?

BUFFALO NICHOLS: I had started putting out original music in, I want to say, 2005, when I was playing punk rock and heavy metal and stuff like that. Then I spent the next 15 years just living the life of a musician, playing in bars, doing tours and playing in all different genres. And that whole time I was playing I was listening to really anything I could find. I just wanted to hear all the music in the world. But I really connected to American folk music and acoustic music probably about 10 years ago. And that version of myself, the one that wanted to play this country blues music, was the version that ended up putting out my first album. Pretty quickly I wanted to branch out from that, so my second album is still essentially a blues-folk album, but I’ve tried to be a little bit more experimental this time around, too.

There are so many different expressions of the blues. Why do you think you gravitated towards solo acoustic blues, as opposed to an electric-guitar-based, full-band style?

I had been working more as an electric guitar player, but there was a time in my life where I wanted to get away from playing in bands. And this style of blues is something that can be just one person with an acoustic instrument. It made a lot of sense as a music for me to be able to explore my own creativity. I wanted something that would give me independence as an artist, and that I could do on my own. 

Who were the artists that turned you on to this style? 

It really started with Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. From there I started to understand what the blues was. Then I discovered guys like Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt. And then there were others, like Corey Harris and Eric Bibb. Those were the ones that really got me into performing the music and trying to write it myself.

A decade or so ago you spent some time in West Africa. How did that experience shape your perspective about playing traditional music?

What I saw there was a different appreciation for the folk culture – a really strong connection to traditional art and culture that I hadn’t really seen in the United States. It made me appreciate it more. Despite the lack of commercial opportunities for traditional blues musicians here, it helped me see the value in it. Seeing other people appreciate their own culture made me see my own in a different way.

In addition to acoustic guitar you often play resonator. We hear it on songs like “Lost & Lonesome,” from your debut album. What drew you to the instrument?

I couldn’t really tell you. I’ve spent so much time exploring music and I’ve tried so many different instruments. Right now, at this point, I’m in a place where I think the resonator is really a gimmick. [laughs] Because there’s something about a blues player with a resonator guitar that seems to make sense to other people. I try to do unexpected things with it, but I think it helps people see the vision of what I’m doing when it’s an image that’s familiar to them. But I don’t particularly like resonators more than other types of guitars.

Photo Credit: Elixir Strings

It’s such a unique-sounding instrument. What type of strings do you use on the resonator?

Elixir actually has a resonator set of strings, they’re called Resonator with Polyweb Coating, that are pretty much like really heavy acoustic guitar strings. And this is kind of unconventional, but I put them on most of my guitars, even my electrics, because I’m drawn to really low tunings – I’ve been down-tuning since I was a teenager playing death metal – and I like a guitar that kind of fights back. So I put a lot of tension on my instruments. And then for some of my acoustics that are in standard tuning I use the Elixir Phosphor Bronze Nanoweb strings. 

What do you like about the Elixirs?

I’ve been using Elixir strings for maybe 15 years now. They’ve been a lifesaver – I can usually get a few weeks out of them before I feel like I need to change them. And as far as the sound, they feel like new strings for much longer than other strings. I’m a pretty busy musician, I’m on the road at least half the year, and it’s just one less thing to think about. I’m pretty much wearing the same clothes every day, singing the same songs every day, so I get to play the same strings every day, too. 

What are some of your main acoustics?

I play a lot of Recording King guitars. I’m also playing a lot of banjo these days. But I wouldn’t say I even have a main instrument at this point. I’m just constantly exploring different sounds and different ideas. I use an MPC a lot, because I have a lot of sampling in my live show and a bit on the album. And I’m using an Elektron Analog Rytm, because a lot of what I’m doing now is based on drum machines. Really, it’s my main instrument these days, almost more than guitar.

How did that influence your new album, The Fatalist?

Well, with this album I was trying to build on some of the momentum from the first record, but without doing the same thing over again. So part of the album is still based in more traditional songwriting and acoustic music, but the other half of the album is a totally different approach, because I was writing primarily with drum machines, and also getting some soundscapes and synthesizer sounds in there. I really made an effort to not just be more contemporary, but to go outside of the lines of a traditional blues album. It was a completely different approach in that respect.

To that point, you incorporate so many different sounds and styles into your music. 

Yeah. On this album, there’s a traditional bluegrass song. There’s an experimental old-timey song. But because people already consider me a blues artist, sometimes people don’t really hear those genres. They’re just kind of hearing with their eyes, so they look at me and think it’s all blues. That’s fine with me, because I would like people to see that all of it, like you’re saying, as an extension of the blues anyway, and not expect every song to sound like whatever they think the blues is. But at the same time, I’ve been trying to push the blues to be more associated with other styles of black music, like jazz or soul or hip-hop, because I think that’s really where it belongs. Just as much as it’s part of country and folk music, I think it’s the root of so much music that came after as well. 

Blues is a style that is so steeped in tradition. How do you balance that reverence for the traditional while also making it something that can speak to younger and more contemporary-minded listeners? 

I think about that a lot. And for me, the most important thing is the context. I try hard to present the blues to people in a way that’s free from all the contemporary cultural baggage of the blues, where it is often presented in a very stereotypical way. Without getting into it, I just try to do the opposite of that, basically. [laughs] I try to escape that and just play the music for what it is.

Now that The Fatalist has been released, what do you have coming up?

I’m going to continue touring on this album. I don’t have any plans to stop. And I’m going to be releasing more music and just trying to expand on what I started with The Fatalist. Which is to present a broader vision not just what the blues is, but what the blues can be.