The return of the White Buffalo

Story originally published Dec. 10 2009

Word of the White Buffalo has spread.

He is not a mythical beast, but ambles just the same. He’s a large white gentleman with a big voice and a throaty yowl that takes a listener back a few centuries, perhaps to a more mythical time – when men sang deep and low and passion flowed like blood and just as frequently.

The White Buffalo is a man named Jake Smith, and he is thunderous. He has only been playing music fulltime a half-dozen years and has made little attempt to draw any attention to himself, except when he is on stage. He isn’t on a record label and doesn’t much mind it. He’s an Oregonian by way of Huntington Beach who went to college and studied history and then picked up a guitar and started writing songs that came out fully etched and deeply wrought, a music that somehow sounds like 1860 through an outlaw country filter sung in a voice that ranges from Richie Havens to Cat Stevens to Eddie Vedder.

“Yeah, I get that a lot,” Smith says. “A lot.”

It might be his uncommon combination of vocal gifts – a rich baritone and a sweet vibrato — but make no mistake: this isn’t derivative music. The White Buffalo is doing something different. He’s singing unadorned songs really deeply. His isn’t a wispy music, but it’s graceful and flowing and takes you somewhere. The songs are about death, love, longing, madmen, belief, going into hiding, into the woods, moons and matadors and the metaphysics of a good drunk, among other things. He writes in an elemental, sometimes Old Testament language: picture Waylon Jennings breaking bread with Cormac McCarthy, foreseeing doom and definitely more drinks.

“I really don’t understand the point of writing songs unless you are going to try to do something, whether it’s telling a story or taking you on a little journey or getting some idea across,” Smith said. “Not that I am preaching or give a shit if people believe what I believe, but I think words are half the song and a lot of the feeling of a song is going to come from that…I mean, there’s nothing wrong with feel good songs, either. I got a few of those.”

Take his feel good song “Carnage”, which has a kind of cheery polka tilt and begins with a whistle straight out of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, followed by these lyrics: “The day that carnage came to town/we locked and bolted our doors down/We laid silent on the ground/Hoping we will not be found…Oh, I can’t see the light/Is it day or has darkness come/like men…”

Then there is “The Madman” which has a Dylanesque effluence of lyrics and follows a bloodthirsty character pretty goddamned convincingly:

“…Like the ravage of a holy flood

Three lay dead in a pool of blood

Above broken bodies madness stands

Blood on his beard and blood on his hands

Hides in the shadows of the still of the night

You won’t see him coming no, no

Done the deed and flees the scene

Out of the corner of your eye you see the mad man running

Oh, the mad man cometh

The pigs are on his heels

Guns are drawn he’s in their sights

They think they’ve got their leads

But he’s a friend of the night…”

It’s not that Smith’s songs are all doom and dyspepsia. Even when he writes about death – “The Sweet Hereafter” – there’s beauty filtering through everywhere.

“I don’t know, in all these songs, there are some kind of darker themes and kind of the shadier side of things and the shadowy side of things,” Smith said. “But there is dark and light and beauty in those places as well.”

Smith didn’t set out to be a songwriter. He bought a guitar when he was 19 and the songs just seemed to arrive. His mother heard him singing one day and stopped in her tracks.

“I was kind of writing songs for no reason other than to write them, really with no musical aspirations or anything,” Smith said. “I just learned a few chords and started writing…It was kind of a shocker to the whole family, I suppose.”

He gigged in coffee shops and small bars and something began coalescing. The songs pulled him forward of their own accord.

“I went to college and lived in San Francisco for four years and I would go out and do the coffee shop kind of thing, but I really was a poor networker at that point,” he said. “There was no bio, no press pack, so I was kind of limited as far as my ability to get shows. I would kind of get shitfaced drunk to get through it, to kind of just calm my nerves…which about halfway through the set would come to fruition and it would suffer a bit. There were some fun moments.”

But anyone who heard the White Buffalo would remember, and by the time he returned to Southern California, he found himself playing music for a living. He released The White Buffalo EP in 2008 and this year released Hogtied Revisited, an impressive full-length album. He’s arrived at interesting time in the music industry. The music labels aren’t exactly clamoring for new artists of his ilk – in this the age of the pre-manufactured star – and he isn’t exactly clamoring for a trip on the merry-go-round of hype.

“Really, my whole career has been word of mouth and just underground build,” Smith said. “It’s definitely a slow train, but labels kind of come and go – I am not completely opposed to it, it just never made sense to me, but I never really had any kind of hype machine around me so it’s great that it just kind of spreads organically. I mean, once you get your people like that, nothing about it is really based on any kind of the bullshit or any of the hype or the PR or anything a label would provide. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to be a lot more well-known than I am, because I would be lying if I said that. But yeah, I am definitely outside the system, and not really begging to get in.”

Though his songs aren’t consciously historical, there’s a timelessness at work that has the unmistakable feel of a pretty significant artist emerging. It’s no easy trick sing stories that stick like novellas in a listener’s head, and he pulls it off. He also does things that shouldn’t be possible at all, like sing a sort of a theologically-themed song “I Believe” that is fun as hell: “Lord, well you’ve given gifts to me/But I’m not blind enough to see your light/Lord, they all got it right you see/They all fuss and fight for thee, but I decline/I believe in what I see around me now…Lord, it ain’t history/It’s more like a mystery, tampered with a made divine…”

Or how about an ode to a bar, a drinking song with a little heft: “I had a fight with the woman so I stop in to think/I have my psychologist poor me drink/My head is clouded so it’s plain to see/We’ll work things out, the bottle and me/The bar and the beer keeps me coming back to here/This drunken stupor is not what it seems/It helps me laugh, helps me dream…”

As accomplished as his record is, the White Buffalo’s live show is thus far the biggest reason the word of mouth has spread. He frequently performs with a well-honed trio – featuring himself on guitar, Matt Lynott on drums and Tommy Andrews on bass – and this will be his formation this Friday at Saint Rocke. He’s not concerning himself too much with how it plays out beyond writing, playing, and singing.

“I figure you can’t go wrong by playing shows and putting out decent records and just doing what your passion is about,” Smith said. “It seems when you don’t water things down and it’s just as real as it is, people that are into that kind of thing – you are going to get fans and you are going to retain them…There is no spoon-feeding. If you want to come to the show, come to the show.”

For more info, see or for tickets to Saturday’s show see Joe Firstman is also performing. ER


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