Buffalo Blood, the album (released 15th February 2019 on Eel Pie Records) and the project is a international collaboration of three US musicians – Grammy nominee Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman - and Scottish musician Dean Owens, and the project’s worldwide launch was at this year’s Celtic Connections. Writing this review as I am now in Mid-March, it is also time to congratulate Dean Owens on winning UK Song of the year for “Southern Wind” (co-written with Will Kimbrough) at Americana Music Association UK Awards 2019
I’ve probably spent more time listening to this album and thinking about this review than I have for any Dean Owens project in the past few years and the reason for that is that this album is taking me outside my normal comfort zone of familiarity with Dean’s writing. Gone here are the tales of Leith, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Scotland that I am familiar with and here the focus is on the desert lands of “The Trail of Tears” and cultural ghosts that still haunt its 1300 miles of landscapes, weather and sounds. This album could easily have been recorded in a comfortable studio in Nashville, but here it was recorded along this trail of “cultural devastation” and forced re-locations over a two week period.
That does not make the music on this project any better or worse than any other Dean Owens project, it just means that I have to imagine a little bit more than usual here as the visuals and the sounds that inspire this project are not my personal experiences. Having said all of this though, the basic building blocks of how you construct a good song remain the same, and here Dean is in fine songwriting company with his co-creators on this project. This project is a statement of not only the physical world around us, but the indefinable and intangible ability of the spirit within all people to somehow survive against all the odds.
Dean Owens is no stranger to Nashville, and that familiarity is evident on this album, but also hugely important is the acceptance that Dean has had in being accepted by American country musicians, writers and music fans. A little reference here too needs to be given to Dean’s Southern Winds album and his work with Will Kimbrough and the team that made this album. Dean Owens is no longer an outsider in this select circle of writers and musicians and he has made the journey based on two things - talent and sheer hard work. It is only natural that Dean Owens is expanding his horizons as a singer-songwriter and we have to allow him the freedom to move in whatever directions he feels like going into. It is unrealistic to expect Dean to stay writing “local” songs forever.
This album has some interesting songs on it, and from the very first few minutes of play, it is obvious that high studio production values have been at the heart of this project from the very start, and as so many of these songs do seem to have been produced with radio airplay in mind, I hope that at least some of them get that access to a potentially massive American market.
Buffalo Blood as an album deals with the very emotive and culturally sensitive issues of Native Americans and their cultural history and identity. It is not possible to reflect on this though without also reflecting on the disastrous contact between their culture and the new settlers who came after them with completely different values and belief systems. Historically I can think of no indigenous culture that was ever better off after contact with new “invaders” and this is where the strengths of some of the songs on this album really lie. Taken out of the context of this album, there are songs here that speak to a far wider audience base and many I think can find parallels in their own situations with the music and words here.
Buffalo Blood is an odd album for me as there are songs here that I am lukewarm about , but as I have already said, some of that is down to having no first-hand experience of the landscape being written about, and I am sure that to someone more familiar with it these songs have a completely different resonance. There are others that I like a lot after a few plays and listening more to the words and the music – “Ten Killer Ferry Lake” (Owens/Britt), “I’m Alive” (Owens), “Vanishing World” (Owens/Hubbard) are fine songs and a clear example of how far Dean Owens has progressed as a writer over the last few years. “Daughter of the Sun” (Hubbard) is steeped in traditional “Americana Folk” and deserves to be a single at some time in the future. Neilson Hubbard is a fine songwriter, but there is something that keeps drawing me back here to the collaborations between Joshua Britt and Dean Owens; perhaps we are witnessing the start of a new writers’ collaboration here. Audrey Spillman is also a writer to watch over the coming years, but here her vocals give some of these songs the voice that is just right for some songs. It is odd that a woman and a man can each sing the same song, use the same words, but somehow, something happens and differently with each and the song takes on a whole different dimension of possibilities. That potential is a potential only starting to be explored on this album.
Buffalo Blood has a strong message here, and this album is also available in vinyl format in “blood red”, and £1 from the sale of each vinyl edition is being donated to “Redhawk Native American Arts Council” project. Audrey Spillman also has Native American ancestry from her great-grandmother, so “Buffallo Blood” has been a multi-cultural project in every sense of the word.
For Dean Owens fans out there, this is not a Dean Owens album, but a project that Dean is involved with and something tells me that there are some “country classics”, perhaps even standards of tomorrow to come out of this combination of talents in the coming years.
A little update here as this review is ready to go live - a second song from Southern Wind album, Love Prevails, also written with Will, has reached the finals of the Nashville based International Songwriting Competition (whittled down from 19,000 entries). Here’s hoping that Dean brings another major music award back to Scotland on the night.
BUFFALO BLOOD CD ALBUM TRACK LISTING
1.Ten Killer Ferry Lake
2 I'm Alive
4 Beneath the Golden Sky
5 Daughter of the Sun
6 Buffalo Blood
7 White River
8 Comanche Moon
9 Carry the Feather
10 Ghosts of Wild Horses
11 War Among the Nations
13 Land of Broken Promises
14 Chant Buffalo Thunder
15 Vanishing World
Review by Tom King