He's a big dude. He's massively bearded. And when he sings, he sings about drinking and fighting and losing his mind and everyone in the joint listens because it's impossible not to. Add the fact that he goes by the name The White Buffalo and you've got a recipe for an imposing, if not slightly terrifying, figure.
But if you call The White Buffalo on his cell phone, he'll respond to his given name, Jake Smith, and he'll probably be driving through Los Angeles traffic near his home, where he lives with his family. Smith doesn't look much like a stereotypical dad, but more like someone who, if 25 years older, could have battled Jeff Bridges for the lead in Crazy Heart. Smith is, indeed, a dad, but that hasn't stopped the songwriting powerhouse from continuing to pen powerfully dark, boozy tunes that he's been booming through bars and clubs over the past few years.
Smith recently wrapped up the recording of his next EP - which didn't have a title when we spoke - and he says his fans shouldn't expect suddenly brighter music, even if he is a family man now.
"It's dark as ever. It's all booze-induced stories, so that hasn't really changed.
I try to let a little sunshine leak in there, but it's pretty rare," says Smith, letting out a surprising string of laughs - laughs you wouldn't think the narrator in his songs would be capable of.
Although he sometimes tours with a band, the current White Buffalo tour is just Smith and his guitar, a format in which he thrives. Those who made it to his last show at the Silver Moon (where he's returning on Saturday night) are still talking about the performance, and with good reason - the guy commands the attention of his fans, not just by his persona, but by the super-sized bucket of emotion he pours into his songs.
White Buffalo fans in Central Oregon are lucky. Smith's parents live in Sisters (where Smith once stayed for a few months after college), giving him plenty of reasons to keep coming back. He's made several appearances in the Western themed small town in the past two years. Smith didn't grow up in Oregon (although he was born here). Rather he spent his formative years in sun-soaked Huntington Beach, California, one of the last places you'd expect someone to be from who makes such deep and dusty country-tinged folk music. His parents, however, were both raised in rural areas and fed him a steady diet of old country music that Smith still says inspires him.
"I like stuff that's not bullshit or lame or whatever and it seems like older music is where I find that. It's really timeless," says Smith.
While we know a few things about his background and his family, there's still an air of mystery surrounding The White Buffalo. Obviously the name has something to do with it, as do the folk-hero-inspired songs he purveys. And don't think for a second that Smith isn't fully aware of what he's doing.
"I think people think that I'm going to be a lot stranger or whatever because of the songs that I write. Part of the idea of taking on the name of some mystical animal was to keep a little mystery about it rather than having everything exposed," says Smith.The songs, however, aren't contrived - they're actually quite real. Some are even a bit autobiographical, even the drinking and down-on-your-luck stuff, which is how we realize that The White Buffalo isn't a myth. He's actually a real guy with a real life who just happens to write wildly explosive songs.
"I enjoy drinking and it seems like trouble ensues a lot of the times (when I have) a few in me," says Smith, "Maybe it's a real life thing."
The White Buffalo,
Lewi Longmire, Anastacia
9pm Saturday, June 5. Silver Moon Brewing Co. 24 NW Greenwood Ave. $7. Advance tickets at bendticket.com.