By Mark Guarino
I’ve had two curious Richard Buckner live experiences. The first was last year when I went to one of Buckner’s shows at the late, lamented Lounge Ax. Buckner played alone atop the stage in the crammed, tiny room. As he went on, the usually noisy crowd at the club stiffened to silence. Then, softly, everyone whispered along, the one word chorus to his song, “Faithful Shooter”: “faith, faith, faith, faith.”
A year before that Buckner was on tour with married Austin songwriters Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison. The three sat in chairs on the Schuba’s stage and played their own songs, in a round. Willis and Robinson were the quintessential professionals, playing songs with smart hooks and pretty flourishes.
But every time it was Buckner’s turn to play, uneasiness fell over the room. It might have been due to the visual: here’s this husky bearded guy crammed into a tiny chair singing about lovesickness, drinking, suicide and loneliness.
That may have been part of it, but I think the real reason for the unrest was Buckner doesn’t really write songs in any way we’re used to. Instead, his songs are more like fragments of thought, the kind you might hear before you go to sleep or right before waking up. They sound so personal and intense and true, you are struck by the intimacy immediately (as the Lounge Ax crowd was), but at the same time aren’t sure if what you’re hearing can even be categorized as a song. His music has little concern for conventional melodies or hooky choruses. Instead, it relies on the subtle expression in his brutish but vulnerable-sounding voice. Instead of clever wordplay, Buckner has a tendency to make up words, like “fater,” that make perfect sense the way he sings them.
Buckner is aware his style is not really the norm.
“I hate songwriters,” he said last week. “The songs are so (expletive) boring and stylized and normal and uninteresting. I don’t want to go around all the bases and end up at home base every time.”
Buckner, 36, spoke to me from a Red Roof Inn in Baton Rouge, which isn’t a surprise. He admits to being on tour continuously from 1994 to 1998, a time when he didn’t have a proper home and, on weeks off, would book rooms in hotels and isolate himself to write. The nomadic lifestyle came from his childhood when his parents would move three times a year (dad was a Firestone salesman). Although he calls Alberta, Canada home today (a year ago he married a native who runs a café in town), Buckner is still on the road nine months a year to bring home money. “I’d love to slow that down,” he said.
But restlessness is the root of his songs. Buckner was living in San Francisco after college when a friend in Atlanta opened a bookstore and invited him to come work for him. At the time, Buckner was working in a warehouse and playing music in the street. When the 1989 earthquake destroyed his apartment building, he took that as a sign and headed Southeast. Knowing no one in Atlanta, he “started over completely” and began a routine of reading intensely and writing. “Something snapped,” he said. Although he had written songs before, he found himself “open to opening” himself up to thoughts he never felt comfortable getting down on paper before.
Those songs became his 1994 debut, “Bloomed,” on the Texas independent Deja Disc (it was reissued last year by Rykodisc). Produced by Texas roots Lloyd Maines (Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Uncle Tupelo), it was recorded in four days. Hailed by critics, it was Buckner’s most traditional-sounding album, a credit due to Maines, he said.
His next two records, “Devotion + Doubt” and “Since,” were more abstract and featured players (on “Devotion + Doubt”) like mystical rock combo Giant Sand and (on “Since”) and Tortoise leaders David Grubbs and John McEntire. By this time, Buckner was well into his fragmented writing style, where he’d “completely overedit” and randomly let the pieces of the character fall into place.
Both albums ended up darker and less structure, but they received further critical raves. To his new label MCA, they were unmarketable. It was a “mutual hate situation,” Buckner said. “They hated my records and I hated working with them.”
“They were the best records MCA put out at that time, but you only have three people at that label who would know what,” said Howard Greynolds, who is releasing Buckner’s fourth album, “The Hill,” on his Chicago-based label, Overcoat Recordings. With experience working at notable Chicago indies Touch & Go, Drag City and today Thrill Jockey, Greynolds sees Buckner in the same class as the Mekons and Ani DiFranco, prestige artists who sell tons of records without major league hype.
“The Hill” is yet another stray from convention for Buckner. It’s music he wrote to 18 of the 214 poems from “Spoon River Anthology,” the classic volume from Chicago lawyer and poet Edgar Lee Masters in 1915. Every poem is a voice from the grave, testimonials from every day townspeople explaining why they died and what they lament.
“When I found the book, I was stunned,” Buckner said. “I’ve always thought the most accurate view of everything is hindsight.”
Recorded with Joey Burns and John Convertino of the Arizona cosmic rock duo Calexico, the album doesn’t have any breaks and half the poems are represented as instrumentals. The tragic stories are good matches for Buckner’s own work: Reuben Pantier dies from a broken heart in the arms of a prostitute, Julia Miller suffers a morphine death because she could not give birth to her husband twice her age, Oscar Hummel is beaten to death because he’s mistakened as a dangerous drunk.
What makes “Spoon River” a classic is how the stories tie together and their overall conclusion. In the poem, “William and Mary,” a pair of lovers much like Romeo and Juliet declare love and death spring from the same source: the “power of unison between souls.”
That theme kept Buckner interested several years ago when the album was just a writing exercise, to last year when he recorded the demos.
“To me, a point of a lot of the poems is that life isn’t worth it and you have to find something that makes life worth it. And, like in real life, a lot of people never find that out. It’s very rare. There isn’t much good about life. But there are a few little things that somehow keep the engine running,” he laughed.
“The Hill” is in stores Nov. 7, but copies will be sold at Buckner’s show Thursday at Schuba’s.