Buffalo Gap song Writing Contest

(This article appears in our September/October issue. Buy it here.)

Jake Smith never intended to make his third record a concept album.

Smith, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter behind The White Buffalo, previously made a name for himself through rustic, gritty, rough-and-tumble country-folk on his albums Hogtied Revisited and Once Upon a Time In the West, as well as through the placement of a handful of songs on FX biker drama Sons Of Anarchy. Yet, when it came time to start writing his third album, Shadows, Greys And Evil Ways (stream it ) – an album with a central character who falls in love and is then sent to war – Smith started to notice a connective thread in the various sketches of songs he had begun to assemble.

“I initially didn’t have any kind of direction, ” Smith says in a phone conversation from his home in L.A. “They were just these songs that spilled out of me. I’ve always wanted to do a longer narrative as I’ve done here. Initially I didn’t think I had the opportunity to do it. But then, some of the songs that were fairly complete, I saw that I could arrange them in a way and fill in the gaps and really make it kind of seamless and linear.

“It wasn’t until we went into the recording and tightened up the arrangements that I could figure out where I needed to go within the song.”

Shadows, Greys And Evil Ways follows a narrative that centers on two characters – Joe and Jolene – and how their love is put through the wringer of morality, mortality and the bigger questions of the nature of good and evil. When the two characters are introduced in leadoff track “Shall We Go On, ” there’s a sense of danger lurking beneath the romantic surface, as hinted in lines like, “He shot the lights right out of her eyes, ” and “He ripped her heart out of her chest, and put it with his.”

That’s just the beginning; from there, Joe enlists in the army and becomes consumed by the horrors of war. He’s shot, sent home, and loses his direction in life, which threatens the foundation of his relationship with Jolene. They ultimately find redemption in each other’s arms, but not without doubts and fears, and it’s that gritty, less-than-picture-perfect image of love that Smith sought to depict in his songs.

“It’s kind of a fantastic story, but a real story, ” Smith says. “I wanted to have this kind of young love where it’s them against the world.”

There are a lot of themes that crop up throughout the 14 songs on Shadows, Greys And Evil Ways, from love and finding one’s direction in life to much broader topics of whether God exists, and if humankind is inherently good. The album offers more questions than answers, however, and Smith’s interest lies more in opening up a conversation than pushing an agenda.

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