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.
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"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."
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."
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."
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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."