The Haunting

Troubadour talent Richard Buckner awakens ghosts and senses on a stunning new album.

A couple of years ago, Richard Buckner's wife was fumbling through the Toyota truck in which Buckner regularly logs 70,000 miles a year touring, when she came across a curious-looking cassette tape and popped it into the deck. The tape held five bleak, chillingly Gothic tracks sung by her husband that seemed to concern...dead people. As it turns out, she had discovered the earliest incarnation of what at long last has become Buckner's latest release, The Hill.

"It was a real accidental kind of record," Buckner says with characteristic understatement from his home in Edmonton, Canada. He's referring not just to the album's subject matter -- ghosts -- but to the long, strange trip it took on its way to becoming one of the year's best albums.

To begin with, the lyrics on The Hill aren't Buckner's at all, but those of Edgar Lee Masters, a turn-of-the-century poet whose Spoon River Anthology collection Buckner put to music. And the dead people aren't exactly dead. Masters's book is a compendium of short "epitaphs" of departed citizens of the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois. Though Spoon River was a literary smash when it was published in 1915, it had been largely forgotten until Buckner discovered the book in 1987 while working a "typical college-graduate job" shelving books in a San Francisco bookstore.

Richard Buckner has interpreted the works of Edgar Lee Masters on The Hill, his grave new recording.
Richard Buckner has interpreted the works of Edgar Lee Masters on The Hill, his grave new recording.

"It was an old book," Buckner recalls. "The table of contents was just a list of names. As it happened, I'd been doing these little writing exercises where I'd make up a name and make myself describe the person and some event in the person's life within a single sentence. So I kept the book without knowing much about it, and just forgot about it."

In the intervening years, Buckner went from being a marginally employed bookstore clerk to achieving something close to cult status among discerning music fans and rock critics, who warmed to his raw, emotive ballads about failed relationships, drinking and redemption. Buckner's music is shot through with a sensibility that evokes the timeless country folk of Townes Van Zandt and the spooky dispossession of Will Oldham, while adding an occasional flourish of more contemporary grunge guitar. This combination makes for an appealing, if difficult to pigeonhole, sound. Buckner is frequently lumped in with the alt-country crowd, which is a few degrees off, but probably the best touchstone.

What's most distinctive about Buckner's music, however, is his voice. It ranges from a throaty roar to a soft whisper, often within a single song. The mood that Buckner's music conjures on records and in concert at times sounds haunted, something that can probably be attributed to the arduous process by which it's made.

"I put my first band together in college," says Buckner, who studied creative writing at Chico State in California. "It was like a punk band. We just made up songs about how we hated fraternities or professors or certain things about life." Buckner cycled through several bands as an undergraduate, then nearly gave up music altogether. "I moved in with this guy who had a cassette four-track, so I started doing a lot of home recording -- not because I planned to do anything with it, just because that was how I liked to spend my afternoons."

Buckner moved to Atlanta for about a year to work in a friend's bookstore; while there, he became inspired to write more.

"I came back to San Francisco with this whole new energy for putting a band together and writing a bunch of songs," he says. "I was a street musician for a couple of years. We'd just hang around and play guitar until some drunk with a knife or something would come at us and we'd leave." He went on to found an "indoor" band, the Doubters, and a few years later was approached by the European label Glitterhouse.

"These German freaks decided to put my record out" is Buckner's none-too-sunny assessment of the encounter, which led to his 1994 debut, Bloomed, but also to the first in a series of record-label nightmares. When the album was released six months later on the North American label Dejadisc, Buckner immediately hit the road. "I'd tried to tour before Bloomed, but it was practically impossible," he recalls. "So as soon as it came out, I started touring the States. I just hit it hard: first three months, then six months, then nine months, then a year. Finally, I put my stuff in storage and stayed out for four years."

From shortly after Bloomed's release until 1998, Buckner was on the road, living out of his truck, his belongings deposited in a storage locker in Bakersfield, California. While such a lifestyle would be torturous for most, Buckner was fairly happy. "I've always loved traveling and moving around," he says. "It's something I wanted to do for a number of reasons: as a way to make a living without being in the same place every day, and also as a way to see things and travel and just experience a little bit more of life. But actually, the whole process of being homeless was very much out of economic necessity, because at the beginning I was making fifty bucks a gig, which barely covers expenses, let alone paying rent on some place you're not even living in."

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