Featured Interview – Carl “Buffalo” Nichols

Cover photo © 2022 Eric Halverson

Last year, Fat Possum Records, the label that brought world-wide attention to Mississippi Hill Country blues artists including R.L Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Robert Belfour, T-Model Ford, and others, released a recording by a relatively unknown acoustic blues artist. Those who bothered to listen to the record had to come away impressed with Carl “Buffalo” Nichols’ talents as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter. So far, the record has garnered some well-deserved critical praise, but has yet to make any in-roads in with award nominations.

imageLast year, Fat Possum Records, the label that brought world-wide attention to Mississippi Hill Country blues artists including R.L Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Robert Belfour, T-Model Ford, and others, released a recording by a relatively unknown acoustic blues artist. Those who bothered to listen to the record had to come away impressed with Carl “Buffalo” Nichols’ talents as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter. So far, the record has garnered some well-deserved critical praise, but has yet to make any in-roads in with award nominations.

One potent example of his skills comes on the song “Another Man”. Singing in solemn tones, accompanied by his intricate guitar pickling, he reminds us that things haven’t really changed. “When my grandpa was young, he had to hold his tongue. They’d hang you from a bridge downtown, now they call it “stand your ground”. Another man is dead.”

Born in Houston, Texas, Nichols moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin as a young boy with his family. A few years later, he started messing around with his older sister’s acoustic guitar. By the time he reached middle school, he was already playing in bands.

“At the time, I was just a kid with nothing better to do. Playing the guitar clicked with me – didn’t really need to think about it. It made sense. Playing music just seemed like the right thing to do. In those days, I was playing everything, like Latin jazz, death metal, reggae, West African music, bluegrass, hip hop, and a little bit of blues here and there. From the beginning, I just wanted to play everything.”

The aspiring musician played in a wide variety of bands, taking advantage of the vibrant Milwaukee music scene. While none of his musical endeavors managed to break out on a larger scale, the steady work allowed Nichols to dedicate himself to music as a full-time career.

As you would expect, his early influences run the gamut of musical genres.

“Early on, it was artists like Chuck Berry and the Ramones. That was material that I could learn to play easily. It wasn’t long before I was listening to Jimi Hendrix, who was a big influence. Other guitar players like Marty Friedman, Tony MacAlpine, and Jason Becker were also a big part of the foundational period for me. My desire to understand the roots of things led me to Chuck Berry, which was about as far back as I could go at that age 11 or 12 years old. It was interesting and new to me, as well as being something I could understand musically while being able to imitate it.”

imageWhile he wasn’t raised in the church, Nichols also ventured into playing gospel music as one more avenue to a wider education, serving stints in several contemporary Baptist gospel bands. There was a time when he was playing in as many as ten bands, a tough way to earn a living but a surefire way to keep the creative juices flowing.

“By the time I was 18 years old, playing music was what I did. Primarily I stayed in Milwaukee, although from time to time I played in several bands in Madison, Wisconsin. I kept my weeks booked playing guitar in local bands. In 2015, I started to publicly put myself out there as a front person. I was working on things, doing home recordings. I started using the name Buffalo Nichols on-line in 2010. In 2017, I went full into it, playing shows under that name, presenting myself as a blues and folk artist.”

Growing up, Nichols was developed a strong interest in the Buffalo soldiers, the name that Native American tribes gave to a regiment of Black cavalry formed in the aftermath of the Civil War. Another touch point was the fact that his grandfather served in an all-black infantry unit during the Korean War, also known as Buffalo soldiers, up until an order from President Truman lead to steps to desegregate the all branches of the US military.

Another turning point came as Nichols started traveling, first doing some solo tours across the US. It wasn’t long before he wanted to take things further.

“In 2016, I was starting my journey as a songwriter. That lead me to start booking tours in Europe, playing shows and meeting people. I went back every year as things began to grow. After four years, I had built up my fan base, allowing me to tour regularly, specifically in Spain, Poland, and Ukraine. I spent a lot of time in Ukraine during Russia’s first invasion, when it was still being called a civil war. I got to see how things really were as compared to what we see through the media. Now things are more or less transparent.

“The main thing I took away from my travels is that there is a place that appreciates roots music, folk music, in a different way. It is still pretty hard to make a living playing blues or any other folk music in the United States. Being an artist in general is a bit more respected overseas, so I was able to feel a sense of pride for being somebody who makes music. I was appreciated for my music there first, then I came back and started doing the work to make it happen here.

“As far as venues, I was playing bars, small music clubs, and an occasional cultural center. In Ukraine particularly, there isn’t much of an infrastructure for folk music, so a lot of folk musicians will play in the same clubs that rock bands are booking. The difference in playing overseas is the attendance. When I was a totally new artist over there, I would play to 50-100 people. There isn’t a lot of money going into promotion. Things happen more by word of mouth, curious people that come out to give you a chance without knowing who you are. That gave me the confidence to keep doing it.

imageNichols booked his first few tours on his own, but it didn’t take long for him to line up booking agents in various regions. He appreciates being able to reach that point, of having a team supporting him, so early in his career.

Another key element in his artistry led Nichols to do a deep dive into West African, playing it seriously for several years in addition to studying the culture the music came from. He played in Milwaukee and Chicago with musicians from Senegal, Mali, and Guinea. Eventually, he made a trip to Senegal to delve deeper into the roots of the music.

Those experiences lead him to another facet of his musical journey.

“It seemed like the natural next step in the process of defining who I am as an artist was to take that same journey with my own culture. I learned a lot about the West African musicians I played with. So I wanted to take that approach for blues and African-American folk music, to make that my “thing”. The term West African music can cover as broad a territory as blues music in all of its varieties. They do share certain musical ideas like call-and-response and some improvisational aspects. Generally the music is distinctly different.

“In the last couple of years, I have spent a lot of time focusing on the music of Skip James and Bukka White. There are others but those two had what I was looking for in the music, so there was a strong connection. With James, the music was a lot more personal, more introspective than a lot of his contemporaries.”

Listening to his self-titled release on Fat Possum Records, one is quickly struck by the depth of the original material, and the deft touch that Nichols utilizes to blend familiar sounds from the blues legacy with lyrics that tackle modern issues with blazing intensity.

“For me, songwriting is a different process every time. I think most songwriters eventually figure out the one-on-one of how to write a song, which can be a simple thing. But writing a good song……there’s no formula to making that happen. It can just come to you, or you have to try to change things up. I have tried all of the methods. When the need arises, I can sit down and write a song, but there might not be any kind of special connection. Other times songs that have a very real meaning sneak up on you, so you have to dig, edit, rewrite, and rewrite to accurately convey that meaning. A handful of songs on the album are ones I have been performing for several years, so I knew what they were about. The others were born in the studio.

“It’s been an intense couple of years. There has been plenty of social action, lots of posturing, and certainly too much inaction. At this point, I am doing more observing. Everything is cyclical. Things have a way of repeating themselves, which can leave you feeling that is unnecessary to get involved, as things will come back around. Other times you do get motivated to make a difference, the other part of the cycle. Right now I am writing songs, and watching”

With his album getting a strong response, Nichols is pleased that there is still a place in the world for acoustic blues music.

image“I never imagined that playing mostly acoustic blues that anyone would care. But a lot of people have noticed. It makes me realize that I have come a long way. Yet I still have more to say as an artist. In that regard I am not quite satisfied. But I am glad that listeners took the time to listen to what I am doing.”

After living in Austin, Texas for several years, Nichols is back in Milwaukee. But unlike his earlier years, he now is free of the constant gig schedules with a multitude of bands. “I don’t play much in Milwaukee any more. I think I have graduated past the local artist stage, now focusing mostly on touring.

These days Nichols is using the Mavis, a Mule brand Resophonic guitar. “It is a chambered, solid body guitar, which you see me playing most often. I also have a Recording King Tricone resonator guitar, which is a metal unit. There has been a lot of rotation, but those two are my main guitars. Throughout my career, I have never been stuck on one particular amplifier. Usually I go with whatever is available. I have been using a Boss GT-1000 effects pedal with a VHT D-50 amplifier. I also did a Supro Delta King amp for a stretch.”

Asked to describe his music, Nichols quickly admits an inability to find suitable words to paint an accurate picture. “It doesn’t help me, not being able to describe my own music. The one thing I am trying to do is to be true to myself, what makes me unique. If you look me up on the streaming platforms, you will hear me doing mostly straight-forward acoustic blues. The music that I am making now is a bit more difficult to describe. It is blues, but heavily experimental, intentionally progressive with a mixture of many genres that I have learned from over the years. There is a lot going on.”

With plans for a second album in the year ahead, the guitarist is looking to continue to tour, which he has done quite a bit of this year, but still finds it difficult to get all of the pieces to come together.

“At this point, I have given the blues industry about as much as I have to give. My intention from the start was to participate in blues music, but it has been a real uphill battle. I was written up in Rolling Stone magazine before any blues publication reached out to me. I think it would be a disservice to me if I keep trying to prove myself to people who aren’t interested in at I have to say. Blues is not a competitive genre in terms of sheer numbers. There aren’t as many blues artists as there are country or indie artists. There is a lot to dig through, which gets compounded because people are also selective.

“So, if you are discovering me for the first time, know that I will always be a blues artist. I might not be at the festivals, or always using the word. It will always be a part of what I am doing. If that matters to you, just look for me to be doing my own thing.”

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