Buffalo Nichols talks blues music, playing solo, moving to Austin and more
Released last fall, the self-titled debut album from Austin musician Carl Nichols, who performs and records under the name Buffalo Nichols, is an attention-grabbing collection of mostly bare-bones acoustic blues music. As touring has opened back up in recent months, he’s spent much of his time on the road as a support act for bands such as the Drive-By Truckers and Houndmouth, with more dates to come this spring on his own and opening for Valerie June.
But first, he’ll play a hometown show on Wednesday at Stateside at the Paramount, a date that was rescheduled from January because of the COVID-19 omicron variant spike. It’s Nichols’ first big show of his own since he moved here in late 2020, drawn by the music community and industry connections. (Both his manager and booking agent are based here.)
Nichols made the album as he was relocating to Austin from his longtime home of Milwaukee, recording some of it up there and some here at Black Pumas guitarist Adrian Quesada’s studio (plus additional sessions at Sonic Ranch in the West Texas town of Tornillo). Renowned blues-roots label Fat Possum, known for casting light on old-school blues greats such as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, brought Nichols onto its roster.
Nichols was born in Houston, though when asked if he considers himself a native Texan, he replies, “I wouldn’t say that,” as his family moved to Milwaukee when he was a toddler. He played in bands there, including a duo called Nickel & Rose that had played in Austin on tour, but also spent some time overseas and got inspired there to pursue music as a career when he returned home.
We spoke with Nichols recently about his move to Austin, future musical aspirations, the sociopolitical relevance of his songwriting and more. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
American-Statesman: Did you relocate to Austin in the middle of making the record?
Buffalo Nichols: Yeah, that's pretty much what happened. I wasn't actually planning on moving to Austin, but I ended up working so much in Texas that during the pandemic, it made a lot more sense to be here. I’d been to Austin on tours, but never long enough to really see too much of the city. But through my management and the music scene, I knew some people here, so it just made sense. It was a pretty easy move to make. I was fresh off of three or four years of touring pretty heavily, so it wasn't that hard for me to pack up and move. My life was already pretty spartan at that point.
What was Milwaukee like for you as a musician?
I spent quite a few years in the local scene in different bands. There's a pretty healthy local music scene and a pretty good market for touring bands as well. … I spent a lot of time going to Chicago too, mostly to see world music, because they have a lot of cultural organizations and university shows. But Milwaukee had some of that, too. It's a smaller city, but we’d get everything that everyone does.
Did close proximity to Chicago affect your appreciation of blues music?
The blues, however you want to think about it, is pretty broad. It's a general term, I think. … A lot of people say they don't like the blues because they associate it with a certain style that they have been told that it is. But to me, Chicago blues is not what I think of when I think of the blues.
So when you think of the blues, what comes to mind to you?
Well, that (the Chicago legacy) is part of it, but for me personally, it's the acoustic stuff in a lot of ways. I guess it's not even of an era or of a style. It’s more of the approach — the more personal and intense serious music is what I like. There’s a certain style of blues that’s made for the house, and there’s a certain style of blues that’s made for the party. I gravitated toward the sit-and-listen blues.
Austin has a longstanding blues community, and acoustic singer-songwriters have always had a strong home base here. Were you familiar with those elements of Austin music before you moved here?
I was definitely aware of it. But you can't really count on reputation. Sometimes there's great music in cities that aren't known for music, and sometimes cities that are known for music can be something totally different. So I didn't really need anything to draw me in; I knew that once you get to any city, you can make make the best of it. But Townes Van Zandt is one of my favorite songwriters. And the whole red-dirt (country) kind of thing, and Willie Nelson, I was aware of that.
Did you know about Antone’s before you moved down here?
As an independent artist, you get a sense of the known venues in every city. So I’d definitely heard about Antone’s. And then just seeing all the pictures on the wall the first time I played there, it was a really cool feeling to know the legacy. Not every city has a venue like that, so it's really cool.
You’ve done several opening-act tours to support the new record. Is this mainly a good way to get yourself introduced to people who might not have heard you yet?
Yeah, it’s more that, and the process of trying to break an artist, especially after the pandemic. Whenever there's a little calm in the storm, you’ve got to go out and get in front of as many people as you can. I don't really think any artist really likes being an opening act. It’s definitely exciting to be in front of more people than you would naturally, but it's a different energy trying to win over someone else's crowd than it is to play for people who are already receptive to what you're doing.
When you do shows of your own, like the one you’re doing at the Stateside on March 30, is that just you solo, or will you have other people playing with you?
Yeah, it's just me. Since the pandemic, I've been trying to adapt my set to a solo act. I've been enjoying it, and it's a fun thing to do creatively. But once the touring industry is a little bit more stable, I do plan to grow a little bit. … Long term, I'm just hoping to be allowed a certain amount of flexibility. I don't want people to expect one thing or the other from me, but I want to be consistent enough that people would enjoy seeing me with a band or solo.
As a guitar player, who did you who did you learn from? Did you take lessons, or were there players you listened to that you studied and emulated?
I never had lessons. As far as the way the album sounds, I think there’s two people I studied the most in order to develop the way that I play. Corey Harris is one; he’s a contemporary artist. And then Furry Lewis (a mid-20th-century Memphis musician) would be the other. It was a little bit later in my guitar-playing career when I discovered Furry Lewis. I'm not exactly sure why, but for some reason, the way he played just made sense to me, and I went off of his style in a lot of ways.
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One song that really stands out on the record is “Another Man,” which you released on a record with Nickel & Rose. It feels like it speaks directly to George Floyd’s murder a couple of years ago, but you had written it before then. Did it feel like people were noticing it more in the summer of 2020?
I’m not sure. I hadn't released it at that point as Buffalo Nichols, and Nickel & Rose was already sort of disbanded. So I didn't really know what people were thinking. But afterward, it did get a little bit of attention, and a lot of people assumed it was written in reference to George Floyd. But that was kind of part of the point. It’s based off something that happened 100 years ago, but it's always relevant.
The song is based off of "Another Man Done Gone," which is about the prison farm camps and all the prison labor in the South, up until the 1920s and '30s. The theme of the original song is that you have no agency and you have no freedom — when you're in prison, they can basically turn you into a slave, even though this was the reconstruction/Jim Crow era. And then my retelling of it is to say that that's still the point. But now the difference is, they don't even value your life enough to make you work. They’ll just kill you.
Before you moved to Austin, you spent some time traveling overseas a bit. Were there specific things you were seeking out?
I was not really looking for anything in particular. I was trying my best to get away from music, because it's really the only thing I've ever done. I just wanted to try something else. And after working a little bit, and I went to school a little bit, it became clear that there was good chance that that could be the way that I spend my life — working for someone else and never really doing anything. I was sort of becoming OK with that.
But I just felt like before I submit to that, I should see a little bit of the world. I didn’t want to wait till retirement age. So that was how it started. And then I was slowly pulled back into music, but I was also enjoying traveling. So I tried to combine the two, and I started taking songwriting and folk music more seriously in that process.
Were there things overseas that that inspired you musically as well?
Yeah. Most of my time outside of the country was spent in in Berlin, and in any neighborhood, you can find a jazz or blues club that would be packed with people who want to hear this music that's very much ignored, but also in a lot of ways very stale in this country. I didn't really think it was possible to make a living at it without being some kind of superstar. So the big thing was to just see people doing it for a living, which I’d never really seen before.
IF YOU GO
Buffalo Nichols with Little Mazarn
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress Ave.
Cost: $20.50 to $30.50