Carl “Buffalo” Nichols has the deep, methodical voice of a storyteller. He speaks in low, even tones that seem unhurried, even as his sentences amble forward invitingly—a trait reflected in the steady guitar picking and rolling vocals of his eponymous debut album, released in October. Last year, Nichols, 30, became the first solo blues artist to sign to Mississippi-based Fat Possum Records in almost two decades. The label began in 1992 by releasing music from revered artists such as Furry Lewis, R.L. Burnside, and Townes Van Zandt, and more recently put out folk music by contemporary artists the Weather Station and the Districts. Nichols’s album adds to the archive of roots music released on the stalwart label and harks back to its earliest days. His style bears the hallmarks of traditional American folk-blues—sliding acoustic guitar notes, sparse arrangements, straightforward rhythms—but his understanding of music draws on a rich set of influences that spans genres and continents.
Born in Houston, Nichols (who now lives in Austin) moved with his family when he was one year old to Milwaukee, where he and his four siblings were raised by a single mother. He remembers his interest in group sports waning at around age ten, and video games had reached a point of tedium. On a whim, he picked up his older sister’s acoustic guitar, a cheap Rogue dreadnought bought from a catalog, and began to teach himself to play. By thirteen, he was going out to see live music in Milwaukee, experiences made possible by the city’s abundance of all-ages venues, which revealed to him a thriving community of artists.
Though he’s now a rising folk-blues performer, Nichols says, “My first introduction to music as a culture and identity was punk.” He caught the tail end of the Midwest punk and emo scene, which stretched through the eighties and nineties into the early aughts and was built by bands like Hüsker Dü and Sunny Day Real Estate. In a way, he was also experiencing his first brush with folk music. Leaving aside its stylistic markers, folk music in the broadest sense is any music that rises out of a community of people to take on a distinct style, which Nichols was witnessing in full bloom in Milwaukee’s punk scene. He recalls “the whole excitement around it—the band loading in and the stage and the lights.”
Though he was watching punk in clubs, he was filtering those experiences through his sister’s acoustic guitar back home. He also began to explore recordings by legendary Black musicians after discovering a CD copy of Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues, the soundtrack counterpart to the famed director’s PBS series The Blues. It would be years before Nichols worked up the audacity to attempt to play some of the complex guitar parts he heard, but he was ensnared from the beginning. “The Midwest has this blues tradition—Chicago blues, the Detroit thing—but I always felt more connected to folk blues and Delta blues,” Nichols says. He fell in love with the songs of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Blind Lemon Jefferson, blues songwriters who, like him, had been born in Texas. “That was something I always kept in my back pocket as a point of pride,” he says.
Just after graduating from high school, Nichols responded to a Craigslist ad from a group of West African musicians looking for a guitar player. He joined their band, Jali Kunda, and befriended a wider circle of artists from Senegal, Mali, and Guinea. Nichols was soon immersed in traditional African styles: Griot music, Wassoulou, and soukous, to name a few. Much of the music centered on an instrument called the kora, which has 21 strings and shares features with the lute and the harp. “We’d be up until four in the morning, drinking tea and playing music,” Nichols remembers. Jali Kunda performed at street music festivals and music cafes, and Nichols sometimes played electric guitar to accompany another kora player named Yaya Kumbaye. While working odd jobs like washing dishes and working in automotive garages, Nichols spent a little over half a decade devoting his guitar skills to West African music nearly exclusively.
In 2011, Nichols’s Senegalese friends talked him into taking a trip back home with them, a journey that proved revelatory. “I met their families and saw where they had learned these habits—where music is not just a job or a career; it’s your social identity,” he says. Again, Nichols had been plunged into the midst of artists, informing his understanding of music not via the radio or television, but from grassroots connections and interactions. “The way that I was introduced to music, everything was supposed to be organic,” he explains.
While traveling through Eastern Europe a few years later, Nichols discovered the Ukrainian folk band DakhaBrakha, which has modernized traditional Carpathian folk music to fervent national popularity and acclaim. For Nichols, it was one more brush with a living legacy of folk music. He began to think about how to take American roots music and translate it for a modern audience. “There’s gotta be a way to keep this folk tradition alive where it’s not too stuffy or corny,” Nichols remembers saying to himself. That thought led him back to the folk-blues he first heard in his youth and culminated in his first studio album under the moniker Buffalo Nichols.
Throughout his experiences with West African music, or dabbling in punk and rock music, Nichols kept listening to the blues, and returning to it completely felt like coming home. “Going into blues, already having so much of that just from living it, it gave me a head start, and I think that’s why it has worked out,” he says. Hallmarks of other styles from Nichols’s past don’t emerge in the straightforward blues record he has made, but the album showcases skills he honed across genres: his excellent guitar playing and his mesmerizing voice, the record’s strongest asset.
“Well since I could remember, I’ve been wandering on my own / Looking lost and lonesome since I left my mother’s home,” Nichols sings on opener “Lost and Lonesome.” Themes of wandering and disconnection from familial roots permeate decades of blues songs, from Bessie Smith’s “Homeless Blues” to John Lee Hooker’s “Wandering Blues.” Nichols’s songwriting also makes frequent use of blues structures by repeating lines in a verse before resolving in a final, divergent line. “I got a long trip and I’m just too weak to ride,” Nichols sings three times in repetition on “Sick Bed Blues,” before concluding, “Now it’s a thousand people standin’ at my bedside.” The ailing narrator seems to suffer more from emotional strain than from a physical illness, as a doctor in the song admits: “He may get better but he’ll never get well no more.”
Like punk, blues is raw, expressive, and rooted in protest. On album standout “Another Man,” Nichols joins the many blues musicians who have confronted social and racial injustice, singing: “When my grandpa was young / He had to hold his tongue / Cause they’d hang you from a bridge downtown / Now they call it stand your ground / Another man is dead.” He was inspired by “Another Man Done Gone,” a traditional song about prison work farms, and wanted to draw a direct line between that history and contemporary police violence. In this way, Nichols follows in the footsteps of blues artists such as Billie Holiday, whose “Strange Fruit” protested lynchings. Nichols wrote “Another Man” in 2016, shortly after Sylville Smith, a Black man, was killed by police in Milwaukee, and the lyrics came amid the ensuing unrest. (This year, two officers shot another Black man, Earl Dean Lawhorn, in the same neighborhood.)
Initially, Nichols didn’t want the song on the record, because he felt it didn’t meaningfully address the clear and obvious injustice in the world. “You can see this stuff happening in real life—why does me singing about it mean anything more than that?” Nichols asks. Promoting the album has meant talking a lot about “Another Man,” having to do the emotional labor of explaining race to white listeners. He feels some ambivalence and exhaustion about this: “The song was really for me and it was for Black people, and now I have to talk about it all the time. . . . Having to explain and translate these ideas because 99 percent of the infrastructure is by and for white people—that’s the stuff that everybody needs to take a critical look at.”
Past directly addressing social injustice in lyrics, Nichols’s folk-blues is intrinsically an act of protest. On Billboard’s year-end charts for 2020, none of the top folk or country artists were Black; only two of the top blues artists were. Artists of color have always made blues, folk, and country music, and in recent years they’ve fought to be recognized as part of these genres. In this effort, Nichols joins Arlington country singer Mickey Guyton, blues-rock musician Brittany Howard, and British songwriter Yola, to name just a few.
That trend is a reclamation of musical styles that Black Americans pioneered, beginning with Negro spirituals, which turned into blues, and eventually inspired rock and roll. “Whether it’s Americana, folk, country, blues—it comes largely from Black American culture,” says Nichols. “It was strategically and systematically taken from them.” Nichols sees the shift as modest progress at best and insists there’s much more work still to be done. He says, “The people that are making the decisions on which artists get to speak are still the same people.”
In 2020, Nichols moved from Milwaukee to Austin to be closer to his management team and to join a music scene indebted to roots music. Despite concerns about the city’s rising cost of living, he’s still found a welcoming community of fellow artists. “People that I know talk about this middle class of musicians that’s shrinking,” he explains. “But it seems like Texas has found a way to have a lot of levels for people to work their way up.” He adds that it’s rare for a community to have so many guitar players who’ve moved up through clubs to carve out a national name for themselves, citing Gary Clark Jr. and Leon Bridges as examples. With his own impressive debut, he may not be far behind.