Down by the river

“The only way you get to the source of s••t is by tearing into it, tearing it apart,” says Richard Buckner. “And if it dies in the process, that’s fine.”

Buckner, speaking by phone from a Northampton, Mass., hotel room, is tearing into what drives him to write the inscrutable sagas of lives in flux or lives framed by loss that have brought him critical acclaim and cult status — but little fame or fortune. His touring partner, Son Volt pedal-steel player Eric Heywood periodically strums a guitar in the background.

“There’s nothing worse than a stale person, or a stale culture,” Buckner adds.

Buckner, 36, is touring in support of his fourth album, The Hill, which serves up musical versions of 18 prose poems from Edgar Lee Masters’ early-20th-century Spoon River Anthology. Some are guitar-based instrumentals evoking the spirit of the texts; others are piquant songs featuring Masters’ dark words. The thick anthology chronicles the lives of more than 200 mostly fictional residents buried on a hilltop cemetery in Spoon River, Ill. Poems, generally titled with people’s names, tell stories from the great beyond. The sagas are blunt, bleak and frequently bitter.

Buckner prefers to call them “real.”

It’s the same word often used to describe him. With the release of Bloomed in 1995 (on the now-defunct Texas indie label Deja Disc), Buckner quickly became one of those “in-the-know” artists, a poster child for the burgeoning alt-country genre. Critics clamored to claim him as their discovery. (Ryko has since re-released Bloomed.) A two-record deal with MCA yielded Devotion and Doubt in 1997 and Since in 1998, both critical successes if not commercial ones. MCA then had the option of renewing Buckner’s contract, but declined.

“We both hated each other very much,” he reveals.

Buckner’s singing voice, both nasal and throaty, harbors periodic rises and falls that cling to words the way cotton sticks to its prickly bolls. His tenor has a timelessness to it, a simple honesty that’s not so much a twang as a throb, trembling like air rising from a distant stretch of desert highway.

The singer carries a natural authority that no sleek Nashville cowboy hat could buy. His slight overbite makes even his smile look like it’s holding back something you really want to know. And his charm as a lyricist is that sense of what’s not being said. The songs let you in on their secrets in stages: Meaning isn’t given, it’s earned. Buckner’s turns of phrase are often ripe with enigma, evoking hazy pictures of lives in transition.

“Won’t you slump on over and stir my shuffle down?” he asks in “Ed’s Song,” from Devotion and Doubt.

Buckner is American in the broadest sense, a resident of Alberta, Canada, who likes his beer Mexican and dark, and who keeps a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on his bedside table. He used to routinely get lumped in with Dwight Yoakam, as part of the burgeoning “outlaw” California country-music set, new traditionalists with real road dirt in their jeans (and in their voices). But Buckner left San Francisco about five years ago, and then his major label dropped him. Probably a good thing — just picture Britney’s exposed belly button winking from popular magazines everywhere you turn. ‘Nuff said.

And come to think of it, Yoakam’s jeans always did look mighty fresh.

So Buckner is back where he started, a loner artist driving himself long stretches to the next show. In other words, do it yourself or it don’t get done.

The Hill was released in November on Overcoat Records, an independent Canadian label with U.S. distribution. It wasn’t a planned album — not really. It began, in a roundabout way, in 1989, when Buckner was shelving books for a San Francisco bookstore. He had a habit of flipping through those titles that caught his eye, and was intrigued by the long list of names in the front of an annotated copy of Spoon River Anthology. So he kept the book. A few years later, Buckner was in Tucson, Ariz., finishing the recording of Devotion and Doubt. He had a week off before touring again and wasn’t living anywhere at the time, which wasn’t atypical for him, he says.

“What I would usually do in those periods is drive anywhere, in any direction, and just stop wherever,” Buckner says.

In Death Valley, he found a cheap hotel built by Howard Hughes as hunting cabins. Buckner holed up for a week in one of the garages. He checked in with his four-track recorder and his copy of Spoon River Anthology; he checked out with five new songs, the germ of what later became The Hill.

“It just kind of happened, because I was screwin’ around,” he admits. Buckner never even took the project to MCA. “They didn’t even like the records with my own words on them,” he says with a laugh. But when MCA dropped him, Buckner felt it was a good time to pursue the other project further. He’d also become bored with his own writing process, he confesses.

“I started working on the Spoon River Anthology as kind of a creative distraction,” he says. He was drawn to the poems because they seemed vital and alive, despite being almost a century old: “They all seem they could have happened anywhere, at any time.”

There’s “Tom Merritt,” shot by his wife’s young lover, Elmer Karr, with the same gun the teenage Romeo had used to hunt the rabbits he held dead in his hand. And pregnant “Julia Miller,” miserable in marriage, who took morphine and settled down to die, comforted by Scripture. And “Oscar Hummel,” the harmless town drunk, beaten to death with a stick by sanctimonious windbag A.D. Blood.

“I don’t mean to sound bleak, but I think a lot of what goes on in everybody’s life is that horrible,” says Buckner. “There’s probably not one person who doesn’t have some kind of weird torture going on inside them.” Using portable recording equipment, Buckner worked on the Spoon River Anthology song cycle in various hotel rooms and also in a place he often tells people is “secret” — simply because he can’t remember now where it is. He took the finished demo to two friends, both members of the Tucson-based indie bands Calexico, OP8 and Giant Sand. John Convertino supplied percussion (album producer J.D. Foster gave Convertino carte blanche to beat on everything in the room except the drum set) and Joey Burns added cello and upright bass, bowed to create a drone effect.

Taking the finished record on the road has been a challenge, Buckner says. Originally, he and pedal-steel player Heywood would perform the whole album straight through, but they weren’t sure they liked how it went over. Now, they typically do the first third of the record and then intersperse sections of the rest of it with cuts from the three earlier recordings.

“It makes for a better show,” says Buckner. But he makes no apologies for what may seem, at first listen, a bleak set of songs. There’s a lot of hope on this record, he feels — it’s just hope wrung from real experience.

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