The White Buffalo: The Soundtrack Of My Life

Jake Smith sitting in a woodland
(Image credit: Snakefarm)

The White Buffalo, aka American singer-songwriter Jake Smith, has made seven albums that blend grizzled Americana and feisty folk-rock, but for his conceptual eighth, Year Of The Dark Horse, he wanted to expand his sound. 

“The songs are still there, but it’s sonically elevated,” he says. “Not that the whole country thing disturbs me, but I’ve never been into those boxes, and didn’t really think I fit in anyway.” 

As you’ll see from his choices here, his influences range far and wide, whether he’s sticking on some ELO to kick-start his day, or enjoying a spate of country classics while playing darts in his garage.

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The first music I remember hearing

My first memory of listening to music was up in Oregon. I was born in Oregon and raised in Southern California, but we’d go up to my poppa’s house, my grandfather, and we’d listen to Roger Miller records, like Dang Me and Chug-A-Lug. I think of sitting on my grandfather’s lap and eating these orange candy things he had in the jar next to his La-Z-Boy. An early, beautiful memory. 


The first song I performed live

I was eighteen and I entered a contest. I sang a Dwight Yoakam song called Ain’t That Lonely Yet. It was at this local country bar in Orange County and they fucked up the key – it was three or four keys too high. It totally screwed me up. 


The guitar hero

My favourite guitar players are Mark Knopfler and David Gilmour. I don’t really like flash, just to be able to emote and have melodies that are memorable. Both these guys aren’t flashy and you know it’s them. That’s got to be the ultimate goal, a signature sound where nobody sounds like you.


The singer

There’s two kinds of singers: talented people who can hit extreme notes and can hit you with acrobatics, then there’s attitude people. But there’s a few people that are both. People like Paul McCartney, who’s an amazing singer and can also hit you with this crazy attitude, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, people that can emote. I like a little grit, a little gravel and a little range.


The songwriter

Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Elliott Smith are my favourites, people that can really use words and melody to hit you in the heart. Those people are the gift that keeps giving, where you think the song is about this and then you’re: “Oh, maybe it’s about that.” 


The greatest album of all time

My favourite record is the Wilco album Sky Blue Sky. I put it on every time I’m tripping on mushrooms. It’s this sonic journey. I love how Jeff Tweedy twists words and gives emotion and life to inanimate things, he’s a master of that. Everyone says Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is their opus but I think Sky Blue Sky is way better. Some of the guitar solos on this thing are mind-blowing.


The best live album

I love the Waylon Jennings live album Waylon Live. You can hear the cocaine and whisky, it emanates out of this record.


The best record I made

I think it’s the new one, Year Of The Dark Horse, sonically and the conceptual idea about things. It goes through dark moments but it’s not as dark as some of the other stuff I’ve done.


The worst record I made

Hogtied Revisited [2008] is a re-do of my very first album, Hogtied Like A Rodeo. It was my first time in a studio, and I would leave and other musicians would come in and I wasn’t as involved. I was still green and I felt like it just got away from me. So I re-recorded it.


My guilty pleasure

The country music that I grew up on with my family. I probably saw fifty concerts with my brother and sister by the time I was thirteen. I have a Spotify playlist with country from the mid-eighties to mid-nineties that starts with the song Bop by Dan Seals, which is the more extreme cheese. I listen to it when I’m playing darts in the garage. It was the end of an era of country where it was still country and wasn’t this formulaic bullshit that you get today.


The best cover version

The Joe Cocker versions of The Letter by The Box Tops and The BeatlesWith ALittle Help From My Friends and She Came In Through The Bathroom Window are untouchable.


The most underrated band ever

Contemporary-wise, there’s a band called Deer Tick who I think are underrated. They’re great songwriters.


My party song

I’ll put on ELO all day long. During the pandemic, I rediscovered Electric Light Orchestra. You can’t not feel good listening to that shit. It’s so unique, with Jeff Lynne’s production and his singing.


The song that makes me cry

There’s this deep cut called Quits by Danny O’Keefe. I don’t know much about him but this song is about divorce and it’s heart-wrenching.


The song I want played at my funeral

I don’t like listening to my own music, especially when other people are present. But maybe when I’m dead I can play one of my own. So I’d go with the last song on Year Of The Dark Horse, called Life Goes On. The last verse is about how you die but there’s still birds and dogs and trees and life goes on for everybody else.

Niall Doherty is a writer for The Guardian, Variety and Classic Rock, and co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former editors of Q magazine Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. Niall has written for NME, X-Ray Magazine and XFM Online and interviewed some of music’s biggest stars, including Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, St Vincent, The 1975, Depeche Mode, Radiohead and many more.