“I think the blues is just a word sometimes,” says Buffalo Nichols, reflecting on the influences that make up his debut album. “There’s always some part of it in the mainstream. Led Zeppelin could have been a blues band if they had called themselves one. I believe artists are more comfortable using the term to describe themselves now. It’s no longer a scarlet letter.”
The Milwaukee native has been testing the waters these last few years, playing live and recording his compositions, developing his spare, agrestic blues. This October sees the release of his self-titled debut for Fat Possum Records. Far from the Chicago and Memphis-styled soul-blues of Robert Cray, Nichols favors a rickety, finger-picking approach that points to such legendary players like Son House. Buffalo Nichols’ music is rich with atmospheres that recall the arid soils and vast, open skies of the American South.
Now based in Texas, Nichols is building on a lifetime of playing the guitar, a lifelong passion that has seen him from a prodigious childhood to an adulthood of season and experience. “I started playing electric blues and slowly began incorporating fingerstyle first by studying players like Mississippi John Hurt and Lead Belly,” the singer explains. “This more folk-leaning blues was a good way to learn the essence of the style.”
Plucking chords with steel-tipped determination, Nichols brandishes his songs with the worn sentimentality that has had many scarred souls in lonely bars crying into their beers. In practice is a poetic erudition that renders numbers like “These Things” with a romance bruised and weathered. When he sings of deeper anguish and sorrow, such as on “Another Man”, a narrative of lynching in the American South past and present, Nichols rings the atmosphere with a voice full of rust and soul.
The eight songs that feature on the album, for the most part, are stripped bare of plugged-in augmentations. Buffalo Nichols proffers a more intimate passage of communication in guitar lines that walk these numbers tenderly, rather than race or charge through them with electric aggression. There are some lovely applications of nurtured harmonies, cosseted by a shepherding voice, as on “Sick Bed Blues” and “Lost & Lonesome”. When the humid heat of the songs begets a storm, the results are a welcome and cooling relief. “How to Love”, a canorous weather precipitated by the plucked angel wires that string Nichols’ guitar, swells to a raincloud of showery percussion that closes out the tune gently. And the near jump-blues of “Sorry It Was You” and the album’s lone rocker, “Back on Top”, offer a little more swing to go with the album’s many sways.
The latest single, “How to Love”, from Nichols’ debut signals the arrival of a singular talent who takes his cues from such celebrated luminaries like Skip James and Furry Lewis but carves a niche all his own in contemporary blues music.