The White Buffalo Sees Through the Darkness With ‘On The Widow’s Walk’

Jake Smith sounds like the friendly singer-songwriter down the street. The White Buffalo however, instantly evokes an air of mystery, apologue, and the kind of figure that traverses generations over crackling camp fires in the night. The two introductions couldn’t seem farther apart from one another. Fortunately, Jake Smith and The While Buffalo are one in the same and this very duality of artistry and personality is what makes up the heart of his new album, On The Widow’s Walk.

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Now on album number seven, The White Buffalo’s newest record definitely comes blessed with a bit of luck. The inclusion of acclaimed producer Shooter Jennings, came about from a conversational spark between himself and Smith. This meeting was a creative catalyst that exploded into the push for not just for a well-made folk rock album, but one that runs with the high-keyed kinetic energy of one-shot takes and natural tracking, until it culminates into the most stirring of listening experiences. On The Widow’s Walk  has its share of lighter folky moments but isn’t afraid to also wade in the darker waters of everyday living and some of the most avoided corners of the human condition: grief, death, and wickedness.

As fate would have it, the duality of Jake Smith’s musical foundations and The White Buffalo’s latest musical journey collided, just prior to the release of On The Widow’s Walk, when the world mourned the loss of John Prine. The roots icon was one of Smith’s biggest inspirations from childhood. Not knowing what everyone would be enduring in the present when the album was being written, for Smith, the juxtaposition of the album’s quick writing, its topical set, and the inevitable reflection on Prine’s passing, brought renewed perspective in the face of the album’s deep themes and Smith’s established musical history.

“I wasn’t on a path early on to be a musician at all. I don’t come from a musical family. We love music; we listened to country music. I was super into punk [growing up] but if it wasn’t for my friend’s dad playing John Prine songs and [Bob] Dylan songs I don’t know if I would have gotten a guitar. It was a rash decision to get a guitar [and] it was based on kind of the simplicity and the beauty of those songs,” Smith says.

“The effect that, indirectly [Prine] had on me but [also,] directly, was immense,” says Smith. “[Prine’s passing] is pretty heavy and it’s full circle. For me, it was like a weird closure of time. I wasn’t really following John Prine in between much and now, I’m revisiting back again, which I’m sure a lot of people are doing.”

Indeed, “full circle” certainly fits the situation in more ways than one. Thoughts that came up with a vehemence in the wake of Prine’s death, about honesty and staying in touch with one’s innermost feelings, were principles held close to The White Buffalo’s heart – not just after the fact but during the making of, and even well before starting, On The Widow’s Walk.

“Honesty for one, is being true to your creative path. I think being honest and being what you are and not have labels or other people or trends dictate what you do. And if you’re creating art and you’re creating something that is unique to you, I think it’s honest,” Smith says, before offering an interesting example to make this point.

“Like, when I go down a murder path [in a song] – which obviously I’ve never been down – I will approach that [as] a fantasy,” he says. “It’s a piece of fiction. To approach it in a way that’s as real as I can possibly do and to try and hit that emotional chord just like I would a song that’s completely autobiographical. I think that’s honesty.”

“I mean you can feel honesty [and] you can see honesty,” he continues. “’Just to be genuine’ is more of my definition of honesty, I suppose – to be genuine and to try to get to some sort of truth. It can still be an honest thing, even if  it’s contrived or made up,” says Smith.

The mixture of truth, sincerity, and imagined explorations of life’s less embraced – but no less real – experiences, definitely carve out an emotionally winding trail of stories for On The Widow’s Walk. It’s in songs contemplating the latter, that The White Buffalo’s desire to evoke curiosity and introspection within listeners, really gets a chance to inspire to its fullest extent. Even just when explaining the vantage point of a song over performing it, Smith is more than adept at putting a spotlight on the sensory and emotionally-powered elements of what drive a story.

“There’s a song called ‘The Rapture,’ on the album which kind of explores this primal, the most primal of human tendencies: to kill or to hunt, and that kind of bloodthirsty overwhelming feeling that this character has, which is a real thing that some people have had throughout history. Today, yesterday and tomorrow, there will be these types of people,” he says.

While a song like “The Rapture” commits to a fanatically dark place with its lyrics, wailing guitar, and even a scream mid-track,The White Buffalo finds ways of visiting other equally difficult topics, from equally fictitious places, but doing so with the same creative nuance that led On The Widow’s Walk to being more than a strict concept album. Though adversity, pain, and emotional uncertainty are prevailing themes on the record, with songs about relationships like, “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love” and “Come On Shorty” The White Buffalo addresses these feelings in a more approachable musical style, without abandoning his signature raw sound.

“I do have a very raw style. Before I used to put a little more, not confusion, in things but, I think the simpler things are, and if you say them in your own unique way, and hopefully have kind of a sound that is yours, [that’s] really always the goal for me. I’ve tried to hit the gamut of what life could be – both the dark side and the light side, the love, the heartbreak, the fear – and to try to go all the way,” says Smith.

“A lot of songwriters are fairly one-dimensional in their approach to writing,” he continues. “Or least their closure of what their little songwriting world could be. And I try to keep that palette wide open.”

It’s noteworthy that The White Buffalo’s open-minded trajectory made a strong impact on nearly every aspect of the creative process for On The Widow’s Walk: from its pre-recording assembly, to Smith’s execution of its performance, and all the way through to considering how people might receive, process, and remember the album differently yet be able to come together through it, during a time when the world is processing a shared traumatic experience.

“Some people I’m sure will attach [On The Widow’s Walk] to this time and this place. It’s a heavy time for people,” says Smith. “Hopefully it will be good. Even though it might not be the same heaviness that some people are thinking of, there is a lot of that [on the album.] You can adjust how you’re feeling – I mean, people are feeling isolated – and go on this journey, that isthe album,” he says.

Strangely enough, it appears the very emotionally vacillant nature ofthe album is what may be the most helpful aspect to listeners in a time when all anyone is searching for and hoping to find, is consistency and stability for better peace of mind. The fact that Jake Smith’s legendary-sounding White Buffalo gets to be the host ofthis album and all its comforting potential, just the makes its arrival feel that much more like the kind of moment in any good piece of folklore, that leads to a renewed sense of hope for those feeling lost.

“I’m hoping [the album] is a little escape for people. It just seems like our obligation [as artists] to make people feel. It’s like, we’re in the f–king emotion business,” Smith says.

“Honestly now,” he continues, “all I want to do is give people, what, 42 minutes of something else – of not thinking about the devastation, and the fear, and the anxiety, and what it is in this new normal, which is really strange. There’s a lot of unknowing in the album and there’s unknowing now. People could use something organic and real and honest.”


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