Americanagrams: The White Buffalo
The High Watt at Cannery Row in Nashville is dark and empty when the large double doors at the back swing open and an imposing bearded man with long brown hair strides toward me. “Are you Paul?” he asks. “I tried to call you.” For just a heartbeat, I fear that I may be in trouble with The White Buffalo. But Jake Smith, The White Buffalo himself, quickly extends his hand, introduces himself and politely asks if I’d like to talk somewhere a little more private. Moments later we’re sitting across from some pool tables in a small lounge, chatting about his new concept album, Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways, released September 10 on Unison Music.
The record spins a 14-track narrative centered on young lovers Joe and Jolene, who are trying to overcome different religious beliefs, disapproving families and financial struggles. Joe’s answer is to join the Army, but his wartime experience sends him on a dark path that leaves him angry and alone. Larger themes such as violence, faith and mortality are explored along the way to Joe’s eventual redemption, when he realizes his love for Jolene is the only thing that will keep him straight.
Smith gave us a deeper take on Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways in this sit-down just before his set.
How far into the songwriting were you when you had the idea to make Shadows, Grays & Evil Ways a concept album with a narrative?
I was already pretty deep. I had the bones of a lot of the songs even before I knew I was going to do a concept album. I always wanted to do an album that starts the journey somewhere, I’ve always fashioned myself as a storyteller. The idea of doing it throughout an album was exciting to me. I had all these songs that were incomplete or just bare bones of songs and saw, “Oh, maybe I can do it now.” So I arranged them, filled in the gaps, changed lyrics, changed context … once I figured out the arrangements, I could figure out how to get him off to war, get him thinking about love, redemption and all the kinds of trials and tribulations he goes through in this album.
Did you feel like the narrative of the characters drove the writing or did you create a story that fit the themes you wanted to write about?
It’s a pretty dark story, but ultimately it’s a story of hope. It’s about the power of love, family and a woman to get this main character, Joey White, into normalcy. Or the idea that he’s a human and not a killing machine. It’s kind of an experiment of good and evil, there’s so much that goes into that.
There’s a lot of very vivid imagery and emotion in the album. Did you do a lot of research to tap into so many different issues and emotions that might come with them?
You know, I didn’t. I didn’t do that much research. I did a little bit for the more military-driven songs. Initially, I wanted it to be a vague idea of what war it was, so you could put it in any time period. In writing, it started spilling out that it was more about wars in our lifetime. Afghanistan, Desert Storm, all of this has been a big part of our lives. Parts of it are still vague, but there are references to the desert, to the sun … in those songs, I actually looked up contemporary military language from those wars. For example, if you get hurt or sent home, they call the outgoing flight a Freedom Bird. And there were other terms I used that are exclusive to the military and the last 20 years of war.
Are there any songs or parts of the album that particularly hit home for you?
It’s inevitable that things seep into your songs that are somewhat personal, often, very twisted versions of the truth or life. It’s inevitable for there to be a bunch of parts of me in there. But this one is a fantasy fiction story, so not as much.
There has been a lot written about the album’s concept, how do you feel about it sonically compared to your previous work?
I think it really has a distinct sound, the entirety of it, which feels good with the narrative. There’s a lot of violin and a lot of baritone guitar. It’s almost like the violin is the female character and the more masculine baritone guitar is more derivative of the male character. Also, I didn’t even really mean to do it, but when I listen back now it’s almost like I vocally approached songs in a very tender way at the beginning when there’s this young love. Then there’s the bravado kind of vocal attack when he’s gone and as he ages, it turns into a croon and an older, wiser kind of tone.
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