Oliver Buck's bio calls him part road dog and part music historian, that's a winning combination! Another winning combination is a strong vocal accompanied by electric guitars on a solo-recording.
Most singer-songwriters and basically everybody performing solo (pianists aside) pick up the acoustic guitar only. It wasn't until I saw Duane Jarvis play, all by himself, on a beautiful red electric guitar, that I realized that it could be done differently. I know that Nick Lowe is good at it too, but he always plays with a band. In the strong women category there's Barbara Manning, also playing her songs -solo- on an electric guitar. And now, out of the blue, came "Rust Belt Blues" by Oliver Buck. Ten excellent solo-tracks, originals, covers and traditionals, just Oliver's deep strong voice, his guitars (not only the acoustic!) and his electric bass.
Out of the blue? Yep, I totally missed the excitement around alt-country band Percival. Oliver was the co-founder of this Kansas-based band, after being noticed by producer JP Bowersock, who worked with Ryan Adams and The Strokes, they were flown into New York City and recorded the 5-track EP "Indian Summer", which received lots of praise in the music press. However, Percival called it quits at the end of 2006. Oliver tells: "The break-up was unexpected, but proved to be a blessing in disguise. In Percival, I started out as the musical director, the sideman. And while I enjoyed being the guitar player and helping to work out arrangements, it became clear before long that there wasn't going to be a lot of room for my songwriting, or for old-school country and blues material, in that project." He was initially disappointed when Justin Klinksick announced that he was leaving Percival to pursue a solo career, but he soon started thinking about a new project of his own. "After a while, it just seemed the obvious next step-- to go back to the well, to the music I loved the most, and build something out of it."
It's not like Oliver Buck doesn't have more experience than playing for two years in a somewhat hyped-up band. He has been performing since he was sixteen, touring and recording as a solo-artist, with his own band during the 1990s and as a guitarist / sideman with a variety of rock, blues and country acts. He didn't forget his education in the meantime: he has a master's degree in American history. He especially likes the 1920s - 50s era when, as he explains: "Country, blues, folk, and rock&roll were all mixed up together. Sure, the marketers and radio programmers tried to separate artists into genres. But for the most part, musicians and songwriters hadn't gotten the message yet. You listen to those old Memphis and Nashville records and there it is-- all kinds of sounds and approaches to playing intermingling together. That's what makes those Sun Records sides so compelling." His biggest influences span much of the twentieth century and include Jimmie Rodgers, Skip James, Hank Williams, Odetta, Bob Dylan, The Band and Johnny Cash.
So, "Rust Belt Blues" features according to Oliver himself: "A stripped-down, not-quite-lo-fi sound. It's a small-budget, self-produced record, and the sound is more direct and intimate than anything I have done before." First track on the disc is "Wreck Of The Old 97", the guitar makes convincing train sounds and not much can go wrong after this. I bet that Oliver, just like me, heard this traditional (true story!) for the first time in the exciting version of Johnny Cash: "And when we cross that White Oak Mountain / Watch Old Ninety-Seven roll..." "Troubadour Life" is an Oliver-original, straight from his heart & own life: "Oskaloosa to East Tennessee / Lawrence all the way to New Jersey / Dive bars and diners from here to L.A. / There's no telling where I might be." Every musician out on the road will say "Amen!" to that. "One thing I know 'bout this troubadour life / You don't choose it, it chooses you." Oliver Buck says about his experiences playing barrooms far and wide:
"Playing in so many different places, with musicians of different backgrounds, in a variety of styles really gave me an appreciation for music that incorporates diverse influences-- and for the long tradition of touring singer-songwriters in this country-- the American troubadours."
I luv his strong voice, with a beautiful timbre, it goes perfectly with the guitars. To do this kind of thing an artist needs good songs with convincing arrangements, a personality too, maybe even a bit of an attitude, just enough to make an impression on stage and on the record. When I see Oliver's smile under his hat, the brim covering his eyes, I know he will never have a problem with that! On "Dark Hollow" he sings harmony with himself. Great acoustic guitar on "I've Been All Around This World", a song dating back to the Civil War. Then the tracks head a bit more into the direction of countryblues, a musical style that definitely should be played more often! "How Long Has That Train Been Gone": he's so good at those train sounds! "Road To Nowhere" is definitely going to be a critics favorite, apparently the story of a move to New York City at seventeen, to play music. Very nice guitar (I keep saying that), harmonizing with his own voice again, very nice ending too! "I went to find me a road to nowhere / I went to follow it down, down, down." More countryblues: classics "Mean Mama Blues" and "Moonshiner". A bit uptempo, smart guitarwork in original "Milwaukee": "And now that you've packed up and gone away / You've aimed your headlights towards Narragansett Bay / The salt air will wash away the thoughts of me / Back home I'll play ol' Waylon and drink til I can't see." Narragansett Bay, who says you can't use long words in lyrics? Last track is magnificent "Bessie Smith", relaxed sound, very good solos and yes, written by Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko indeed!
I didn't get bored for one second, first let me reach for that repeat button again... This is an intimate performance carried out successfully, thanks to the clear production and close into the microphone singing and playing. As an enthusiastic fan states accurately: "Oliver Buck makes this album so special by bringing his love of history into the music." The new originals fit in very well with the older songs, no discrepancies. And that takes some knowledge.
Oliver's kinda brave too: he's leaving the semi-comfortable job of selling guitars for doing the performing / songwriting / recording thing full-time. He's also moving back to his hometown Cleveland with his wife Laura and their baby son. Most musicians I know, do the opposite and leave the road at this point in their life, to bring home the bacon for wifey and the babies... So: more power to Oliver Buck!
Written by Johanna J. Bodde, June 2007.