Richard Buckner hits the road
By Meredith Ochs
AUGUST 17, 1998: Richard Buckner's lyrics are so poetic that during our conversation I suggest he publish them in book form. "Thanks, I want to be as recognized as Jewel," he laughs. It's a hearty laugh for a guy whose songs tend to sound serious, but Buckner's albums have always been loaded with contrast: darkness and light, desire and fear, and the lure (or demand) of the road versus the need to lay down roots.
His third and newest album, Since (MCA), combines the seemingly disparate sounds of dusty folk and blues with distinctly modern rhythms. It sounds like a strange combination, but the crooked mountain melodies from which this thirtysomething Northern Californian draws play perfectly on the off-kilter rhythms and stark arrangements of some of rock's most uncompromising players. Produced by J.D. Foster (who also produced Buckner's major-label debut, devotion + doubt), Since owes its striking sound partly to the dynamic interplay between Chicago experimental rockers John McEntire (drums for Tortoise and the Sea and Cake) and David Grubbs (organ and piano for Gastr del Sol), both of whom Buckner hand-picked for the project.
"I wanted McEntire to take me out of this 4/4 Eagles thing I tend to get stuck in," he explains, "and it was amazing how the songs changed shape when he came in; they got hotter and more aggressive. Then Grubbs played a few chords on the piano and they cooled right down." Buckner is, in effect, connecting past and present within his songs, but he shrugs off any grand philosophy or intent. "I just happen to like all this different stuff."
Buckner's latest is not only more dynamic but seemingly more optimistic than devotion + doubt, which offered a sad but stunning glimpse into the demise of his marriage. "Since is more positive. It's a rock-and-roll record, so the tone's more upbeat; they [the musicians who played on it] saw to that." The rest of Buckner's assembled cast -- guitarists Dave Schramm and Chris Cochrane and pedal-steel player/unofficial fifth Son Volt member Eric Heywood -- create a crunch-and-twang backdrop for his evocative songs (former Golden Palomino Syd Straw also makes a vocal cameo). There are still plenty of reflective, quiet moments, though, where Buckner's singing soars above and slips below his fingerpicked melodies on the acoustic guitar. His gentle vocal timbre revels in the strange-but-true stories of rumpled, romantic souls, mostly his own.
As on Buckner's previous two releases, the songs on Since are rife with imagery -- nights that roar, spirits that glide, lovers who slip away -- inspired by the nomadic lifestyle he lives and the many characters he's encountered along the way. "I'd been traveling a lot when I wrote these songs, so some of them got written in Motel 6's. I tried to hold back on the stupid motel references, but they kept popping up; that had been my existence, and you write about your existence." But where he once focused on intense introspection for material, Buckner now looks outward a bit more. "The songs are based on different characters I'd been meeting and different situations I'd gotten into on the road, some of which were pretty astounding. They're partly fictional, but they're all about stuff that really happened. I found that the farther you go from home, the more trouble you can find, and there's a lot of trouble out there."
"Out there" is where Buckner continues to spend most of his time. Although he's been in Edmonton a few months, working with a Canadian drummer and playing folk festivals ("Walking in on some of these folk events with a 26-inch bass drum is kind of like saying 'Fuck God' in a church," he jokes), Buckner's home is still the road, and he carries his gear around with him in his truck. "I've got all my guitars in there and about 300 CDs to listen to. The rest of my stuff is in a storage space in Bakersfield, California. It's a good excuse to go there, because every Friday and Saturday night, Buck Owens plays. It's mostly locals, and you can get in for five bucks and slow-dance with someone to 'Together Again.' Next door is a freaky Best Western with the most screwball karaoke bar I've ever seen, and down a block is Zingo's, a gourmet truck stop. It's like the Miracle Mile of Bakersfield, just characters deluxe."
Songwriting inspiration notwithstanding, Buckner acknowledges that the road wreaks havoc on one's personal life. "It's hard to keep in contact with people or make any long-lasting relationships if you're leaving every couple of days or you don't even know when you're going to be in your hotel room to get a phone call. Things are kind of up in the air right now -- I'm trying to figure out where to go next -- but I'm feeling like I have to move somewhere for the winter. I've got a few things I'd like to hang on a wall sometime."