The White Buffalo, from ‘Sons of Anarchy’ to ‘Darkest Darks’ to Aspen
The Aspen Times
If You Go …
Who: The White Buffalo
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, Nov. 17, 9 p.m.
How much: $18/general admission; $30/reserved
Tickets: Belly Up box office; http://www.bellyupaspen.com
Over seven seasons of “Sons of Anarchy,” the White Buffalo was the unofficial musical voice of the show.
The White Buffalo, a California-based trio headed by baritone singer-songwriter Jake Smith, wrote songs and performed covers that perfectly fit the show’s dark and complex vision of the world. Smith delivers his rootsy country and bluesy folk tunes with a punk rock snarl befitting the outlaw motorcycle club. The show’s embrace of his music — including the 2014 series closer “Come Join the Murder” — changed Smith’s life.
“It had a huge impact,” Smith, who headlines Belly Up Aspen today with the White Buffalo, said recently from home in Los Angeles. “Especially because they used the music and had it really be a part of the story and not just background.”
Smith and the White Buffalo had been self-releasing music since 2002’s “Hogtied Like a Rodeo,” but the “Sons of Anarchy” platform brought a global audience to his gloomy brand of alternative country.
“I had so many songs on that series that I think people were like, ‘Wow, this is the same voice and the same guy writing these songs,’” Smith said. “A lot of people dove deeper into the catalog and have become fans.”
The White Buffalo is coming to Aspen on a tour in support of the new album, “Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights,” released last month. Smith and his band are still figuring out how to play the new songs, he said, and mixing their set lists up with new and old material.
“We’re coming with the passion and the aggression and everything in between,” he said.
Smith is at heart a storyteller. His songs plumb the depths of good and evil in stories about rebels and outsiders and hard-luck cases. It’s no surprise when he says Cormac McCarthy is his favorite novelist.
Smith is an heir to unflinching, truth-spitting songwriters like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. His songs have taken on gun control, the economic exploitation of the 99 percent, the neglect of war veterans, but these songs are searching for universal and timeless truths in their personal storytelling. The ambitious 2013 White Buffalo album “Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways” was an album-long saga made up of interconnected stories about a pair of doomed lovers.
Most of the songs on the new record are character-based narratives, often noir-ish first-person stories.
There’s “Nightstalker Blues,” about the murderer Richard Ramirez. It was inspired by Smith’s memories of hearing the terrifying details of the serial killer’s crimes when Smith was a child in Los Angeles. He dug into research about Ramirez to get his details right.
“I researched that one to keep it as honest and true as I could,” Smith said, “which was a little gnarly. That’s a scary rabbit hole to go down.”
“Robbery” is about a pair of guys knocking over a convenience store and the aftermath. His “Border Town/Bury Me in Baja” is a driving Spanish guitar blues narrated from the perspective of a shady character on the Mexican border.
“The majority of them are fantasy-driven,” Smith of the tales he spins in song. “Some are personal and autobiographical in a way, but they’re twisted versions of the truth.”
Though it includes some stand-out ballads, like “I Am the Moon,” the new record overall has a harder-edged, more aggressive sound than previous White Buffalo efforts. That direction, Smith said, was born out a fast-paced writing and recording process. He wrote most of the songs during the brief studio sessions — he would write in the morning and record in the afternoon.
“There was this urgency and that’s what happened to spill out at the moment,” he said. “We had the bones of three or four songs going into it. It was a pretty by-the-seat-of-my-pants situation.”
It also was an unusual approach for Smith, who normally goes into making a record with 20 or so songs already sketched out: “I felt like it was time to start recording, so I said, ‘F— it, let’s start Wednesday.”
Nobody ever quite knows how to categorize the White Buffalo. That’s alright with Smith, who enjoys the creative freedom of being unpredictable.
“It allows me a palette of songwriting that’s limitless,” he said. “And not only in genres and styles of music but in themes. I can write a love song, a heartbreak song, or I can write a song about murder, about drug-trafficking.”