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The Haunting

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

Despite circumstances, Bloomed became an underground hit, finding its way into the hands of a small but devoted audience and even onto Spin's list of the best albums of 1995 -- giving rise to the odd juxtaposition of fame and poverty that's marked Buckner's career. While the album did better than its German funders probably hoped, Buckner never saw much in the way of remuneration. (After years of legal wrangling, he finally won back the rights to the master tapes and re-released Bloomed on Slow River Records two years ago.) The stress -- and the road -- gradually took its toll.

"It definitely fucked me up," Buckner admits, laughing. "It makes a permanent change in everything that's deep and wide. I probably still don't know how much of a freak I am about things, because I've been doing this for so long. You always think to yourself on these long stretches, 'I'm okay, I'm surviving.' And then you get back off the road and start talking to an old friend, and they're like, 'Jesus, do you even realize what a freak you've become?!'

"I still haven't broken the habit, really," he continues. "Even when I come back up here to Canada and stay for months at a time, I still tend to keep all my stuff in one area, like I do in a hotel room or on stage, so I don't forget anything and can keep an eye on everything. It's a really hard lifestyle to break. It's very much like being a wild animal: You have no personal space, no personal time, no identity."

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.

The adulation that Bloomed won caught the attention of a major label, MCA, which signed Buckner and released his next two albums, 1997's Devotion and Doubt and 1998's Since. Both were well received by just about everyone except his label (although the major-label money did permit a small lifestyle upgrade; for a time, Buckner lived in a walk-in closet). "It was a mutual hate situation," he says of his stint with MCA. While his albums sold a respectable number of copies, Buckner's supporters at the label left soon after he was signed. Their successors saw little potential in Buckner for a hit single and treated him accordingly. But however unpleasant the label/artist relationship was, it fostered the strange conditions that brought about The Hill.

"I checked into this hotel in Death Valley for a week at one point around 1995, when I wasn't living anywhere," he recalls. "I'd been carrying Spoon River around with me. I didn't really know I was going to put [the poems] to music. I just had this little book and my little cassette four-track with me, and at the end of the week, I walked off with five songs. Then I forgot all about them."

Again. But in 1999, more than a decade after Buckner first discovered the book, his wife's discovery led to the project's resurrection.

"I'd been thinking about Spoon River and wanting to revisit that stuff, but MCA didn't even like the records with my own songs, let alone those based on 100-year-old poems" -- Buckner laughs -- "so I really didn't know quite what to do with it. But they wanted me to do some demos for a third record, so I suggested they buy me some cheap equipment and I'd make them myself. They cut me a check for a couple thousand dollars, and I bought this very primitive tape-recording equipment. We split up a few months later, so they never heard anything. It was a great pain in the ass being on the label, but the one thing I got out of it at the end was the equipment I used to make The Hill."

After a long journey, Buckner finally recorded The Hill on his own, enlisting the help of Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino, and released the album -- hassle-free -- on the Chicago indie label Overcoat Records. In concert, when Buckner is accompanied by only his guitar, The Hill is the sort of Gothic Americana that echoes the Appalachian folk and murder ballads he admires. In person, Buckner's hulking size belies his slight, often sullen voice, and he stoops a bit when he sings, as if to apologize for the disparity. (As one critic put it, in concert he's part Charles Manson, part Kurt Cobain on MTV Unplugged.)

Buckner's next project will be a film score to an indie movie tentatively titled Dream Boy, after the novel of the same name by Jim Grimsley. "It's a really beautiful story about a fourteen-year-old [boy] and a seventeen-year-old boy who live in a rural area and end up falling in love," Buckner reveals. "There are some dark Daddy themes and some dark religion themes, which are way up my alley."

He's also at work on his next album of originals, a project that, not surprisingly, has already been under way for several years and may not see the light of day for several more.

"I've actually already recorded my new record," Buckner says. "But it's going to stay here in my basement, and I'm going to redo the whole thing on my own. I need to wait for some change in myself, some little jag that will change the way I approach things -- musically, lyrically or whatever. I'm aiming to have something by the end of next year. But we'll see. I could hit the road, and that could all change."

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