Born in Houston, raised in Milwaukee and now based in Austin, Carl “Buffalo” Nichols is the first solo blues act signed to Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records in more than two decades. His eight-song debut shows why — the album is a testament to acoustic blues, showcasing Nichols’ deft fingerpicking and slide work, and an ability to stop you in your tracks with a single line.
At age 6, Nichols was haunting record stores, using his newfound reading skills to learn the various musical genres. At 11, he was given the box set from Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues and spent the next year devouring the artists he most connected with, which just happened to be those who delved into darker themes and sounds.
“I’ve dabbled in and listened to just about any kind of blues I’ve come across,” Nichols says, “but the stuff I really connect with is the heavier stuff, because the whole juke joint/party/dance blues is all good and fine, but it’s just not what I love about the blues, so when I hear certain songs by Skip James or Son House or Charlie Patton, I just feel what is the essence of the blues — its origins, which is a lot of grief and frustration. And it’s not all about that, but to me that’s where it begins.”
As an aspiring teenage guitarist, Nichols was further captured by the blues he discovered in his mother’s record collection — Robert Cray, Corey Harris — while Milwaukee offered gigs playing everything but the 12-bar bible. Instead, Nichols played in punk bands, in church, in hip-hop outfits and more, only returning to his first love after a European jaunt landed him in a Kiev blues club. On his return home, he made the demos that became the basis of this impressive debut, an album steeped in tradition but with an urgent, contemporary edge.
The tumbling lines of the 30-year-old’s fingerpicked guitar carry echoes of the blues pioneers of the 1920s, but while the likes of Robert Johnson and Willie McTell sang with high, pungent voices, Nichols’ vocals are husky and intimate, which makes the anger of his lyrics the more biting. “Another Man” addresses the U.S. history of lynching and police killing (it was written before the murder of George Floyd). Nichols sings, “Why wear a hood when a badge is just as good?”
Overtly political numbers such as the harrowing “Living Hell” sit alongside more personal pieces; the desolate “Lost and Lonesome,” the rueful “Sorry It Was You.” Nichols has described the album as an ode to loneliness, the soundtrack to a wandering soul. That may be, but stripped back and raw, his mesmerizing guitar front and center, this is gritty old-style blues with a laser-sharp focus.