Walking the trail of tears with Buffalo Blood

Buffalo Blood is an international film and music collaboration which addresses the very current issues of displacement, immigration, refugees and the power of the human spirit through revisiting the lands, myths and histories of America’s Native Americans. Comprised of Nashville musicians, Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman alongside Scottish singer-songwriter Dean Owens (and with Nashville studio engineer Jim DeMain as a fifth member) they have a self-titled album due out on February 15th. The album was recorded live and in the field in New Mexico in several iconic locations including La Plaza Bianca, Echo Canyon and artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch.

With all four members composing and taking turns at vocals on the songs it’s a truly collaborative effort while the visual element is catered for on the project’s website as a series of photographs and videos are being released, capturing some of the spectacular beauty of the rocks and canyons and starlit skies they recorded under. It’s not however a “concept” album. While it hangs its hat on the tribulations of Native Americans as they were forcibly removed from their lands to reservations – migrations which are referred to as the trails of tears – there’s a universal element which resonates to this day and as such the songs are impressionistic as opposed to historical narratives. It’s as much about the sounds of nature around them and the ghosts which haunt the magical landscapes they recorded in, ghosts which haunt all of us in these troubled times.

The world premiere live performance of Buffalo Blood will take place at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections on the 25th January and while three quarters of the band are still on the other side of the water we buttonholed Dean Owens to ask him a few questions about the genesis of the project.

Hi Dean, how exactly should we refer to Buffalo Blood? Is it an album, a group, an art project, a collaboration or what?
The short answer is a bit of all of those. The record might be the most tangible element but we see it as much more than just an album. Without sounding pretentious, we all see it as a work of art with the songs, pictures and videos all part of the whole. As a band of performing musicians we can’t really take this on the road as we are all busy with our own individual careers, for example, since we recorded the songs, Neilson has become just about the busiest man in Nashville as the in demand producer having just been nominated for a Grammy for his work with Mary Gauthier on her Rifles And Rosary Beads album. So, while the whole concept can be experienced through the album and the website, it’s difficult for us to gather all the elements in one place and that’s why the Celtic Connections show is so exciting as it might be the one chance for us to present it in a live situation.

Where did the idea for the project come from?
I guess it was really me who had the idea in the first place. I was working with Neilson on my Into The Sea LP and he was finishing off the first Orphan Brigade album and we were talking about ways of doing an album that dug a little deeper into a subject. I mentioned a batch of songs and sketches I had that were batting around the idea of the oppression of Native Americans and he got really excited by it. Joshua and Audrey then came on board as well and we really took it from there. It’s a subject that’s always interested me in various ways and as a Scotsman I felt I could relate to it a little due to our history of the highland clearances. And then of course the clearances meant that a lot of our ancestors went to America, settling at first in the east, the Appalachians and such and then they headed west and moved the Native Americans off their lands. So a lot of it connects. The germ of the idea is really contained in one song, the one we’ve released as a single,‘I’m Alive’. The very first place I went to in America, over 20 years ago now, was New Mexico and I was just blown away by the landscape and the feel of the place and that led me to look into the history of the southwest. I started reading a lot of books about it, about characters such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and the whole injustice that happened. And I was sitting there as a Scotsman thinking, Jings, we don’t know much about this and we were part of it in a way. So that song I wrote was a way into it but when all four of us got together it blossomed into very much a collaborative effort with all of us writing songs which fitted in.

Listening to the album there’s a definite atmospheric feel to it along with a true sense of place. The song titles are evocative while there are elements of the Native American ghost dance myth along with what seems to me some Morricone inspired moments.
Yeah well, the whistling on ‘Ghosts Of White Horses’ was quite deliberate as it’s a quick and easy way to set the scene and get people to connect the music with the place as they think back to those spaghetti westerns which we’re all familiar with. As for the song titles, that was kind of freaky at times. Years ago, I was looking at a map and I saw this place called name Ten Killer Ferry lake and I just thought it was a fabulous title for a song. And then when we were writing the songs I looked it up and that was actually where a lot of the Cherokees were forcibly moved to in Oklahoma so it fit right into the bill. A lot of the songs occurred that way and we all thought that there was a sort of spiritual feel emerging as we followed the trail of tears when we headed to New Mexico and we saw road signs with the names of places we had read about all leading us to the recording sites.

How important was it to record the songs in situ?
I know Neilson’s been asked about this before. Why we just didn’t record the album in the studio instead of lugging all the equipment into the New Mexico desert and recording it live outdoors. We wanted to capture, as much as we could, the landscape and the sounds, it harks back to the likes of Alan Lomax doing his field recordings. We were like live recording ninjas. We’d get to a place, set up and play and then leave because a lot of these places are tourist destinations. In fact, when we were recording in Echo Canyon, a famous landmark with a lot of history and folklore around it, a bunch of tourists appeared and when they saw and heard us they were blown away by it because that’s what the rock was for, a natural auditorium formed from this huge red rock which amplifies anyone singing in it. They were walking up from the car park and heard us before they saw us. Another place we recorded in was the artist Georgia O’Keefe’s ranch and if you want to get an idea of the settings I’m talking about you should look at some of her landscape paintings.

While the project focuses on the ill treatment of Native Americans, there’s a sense that these tales continue to resonate these days.
Well, exactly. I mean one of the major inspirations for the project was Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which I read years back, and it really captured my imagination. I couldn’t believe what I was reading as when I was growing up westerns told us that the “Indians” were the bad guys and it was kind of like propaganda that had been going on for a century or so. One of the songs on the album, ‘Carry The Feather’ is about the enforced assimilation of Native American children, they were taken away from their families and put in schools where they weren’t allowed to speak their own language or wear their traditional clothes and their hair was cut off. They were thrown off their land as white people looked for oil and gold and that’s still going on if you look at what’s been happening with the Standing Rock protests about the pipeline running through Dakota land and all over people are being forced to migrate due to war and famine so it continues to go on. But we’re not trying to beat people over the head with a message. It’s an attempt to capture a feel, a white person’s view of what happened. We’re not going to have liner notes or lyrics in the album package as none of us are scholars and it’s not a historical artefact but I think in recording it in the New Mexico desert in those historical, mystical and beautiful surroundings we’ve succeeded in getting our thoughts out there. It’s a magical place, the sky is just incredible, the stars are so clear and we’ve tried to show that in the video for ‘Ten Killer Ferry Lake’ which you’ll see soon.

Finally then, the Celtic Connections show might just be the one opportunity to savour the full blown Buffalo Blood experience?
Well, as I said earlier we all have our own gigs so we’re really grateful to Celtic Connections for this opportunity to launch the project with a bang. We’ll have films and projections running as we play and just to beef up the sound a bit we’ll have my buddy Kevin McGuire from my old band The Felsons on bass to add another wee Celtic connection. It might be the one time we do this so we’re all looking forward to it. It’s been two years in the making so it will be great to have it out there.

Buffalo Blood, the album, will be released as a double vinyl set in the UK on February 15th and will be available digitally worldwide. The visual media accompanying the songs can be seen on the Buffalo Blood website here.

£1 from the sale of each vinyl album will be donated to the Redhawk Native American Arts Council.

Author: Paul Kerr

Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.

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