Richard Buckner

TrackAlbum
Blue And WonderBloomed
22Bloomed
Six YearsBloomed
Lil Wallet PictureDevotion+Doubt
Ed's SongDevotion+Doubt
Ariel RamirezSince
A Chance CounselDents and Shells
TownMeadow
The Tether And The TieMeadow
EscapeOur Blood
BONUS TRACK
Beautiful QuestionSurrounded

Richard Buckner photo 1

 

 

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Richard Buckner playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

In a sense Richard Buckner represents the connection or the missing link between the great school of Texan songwriters (which stemmed from the circle around Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt) and later more left field alt-country artists like Bill Callahan and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Although he is not Texan himself, his first album clearly fits within the template set by the first of these groups. His later albums have, however, moved in a far looser, more unconventional and free-form direction which is closer to the second. If his early work indicated the emergence of a striking new talent in the singer-songwriter mould, his later work moved away from that type of simple categorisation. In career terms this shift may have meant that Buckner would always be something of a ‘cult’ artist, but artistically it meant that he was always an interesting – if at times a challenging – one.

Buckner was born in Fresno in California in 1964. After a rather unsettled childhood where his family moved around regularly, he went on to study English at university. It may have been those childhood experiences that account for the emphasis on themes like ‘the road’, exile (of one sort or another), loneliness and the attractions/pitfalls of solitariness which run through his work. After leaving university, he began to dabble in both creative writing and in writing songs. For a brief time, he was also the front man in a band called The Doubters, who attracted some local attention but did not really achieve any mainstream success. Over time, he also began to develop a personal writing style which owed a good deal to the influence of artists like Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams and Peter Case. Along with these, he also expressed an admiration for indie bands like R.E.M., The Replacements and Pavement. Buckner’s music also owed a strong debt to that of more traditional folk musicians like The Carter Family and Ralph Stanley. Their influence is perhaps strongest on his singing style, which has a rawness and unvarnished feel quite unlike that of most of his contemporaries. This rawness is well captured in the a capella version of his song Fater which can be seen here.

Buckner’s solo career began to take off after a trip to Texas in 1994, where he drew the attention of the great songwriter, Butch Hancock, and of the steel guitarist in Joe Ely’s band, Lloyd Maines. They were sufficiently impressed by his work to agree to help him with recording his debut album, Bloomed, which he made later in the same year. Maines’ production work on the record also ensured that its sound reflected the influence of what could be described as the Austin (or more strictly speaking the Lubbock) sound. The stark, bleak, poetic quality of the songs Buckner was writing at this time also fitted well within the model established by his great Texan predecessors. It was also clear from the opening song on it, Blue And Wonder (which is my first choice), with its great opening lines I’ve been stunned / And I’ve been turned I’ve been undone and burned that the album marked the emergence of a major new talent. Like many of his songs. Blue And Wonder seemed to be an exploration of a doomed relationship. It also displayed Buckner’s keen powers of observation even if these are usually of a ‘glancing kind’. This emphasis on capturing brief moments rather than on creating sustained narratives may have been influenced by his admiration for the writing of the great American short story writer, Raymond Carver. The song also displayed his gift for memorable melodies.

The next choice, 22, is a powerful and disconcerting story of a suicide. Told from beyond the grave and set to a striking folk-style tune, the song is a clear example of Buckner’s ability to take on dark/disturbing themes in a powerful and unexpected way. The next selection, Six Years is another of Buckner’s finest ‘doomed’ love songs. It also benefits from some fine accordion playing by Ponty Bone, who, like Maines, was then with Joe Ely’s band.

As these choices demonstrate, Bloomed was an unusually assured album for a debut and it remains a high point in Buckner’s career. It was also a significant critical – if not a commercial – success. The instrumentation used on it – dobro, steel guitar, mandolin, accordion, and mandolin – also meant that Buckner came to be associated (mistakenly in his view) with the alt-country scene which was then emerging through bands like Uncle Tupelo and its offshoots, Son Volt and Wilco.

The next two picks come from Buckner’s second solo album, Devotion+Doubt, which was released in 1996. It was a ‘break-up’ record, tracing the dissolution of his first marriage. However, the lyrics on it are not as straightforward as this would suggest. Instead, they demonstrate the shift towards a more abstract, allusive and elusive type of writing which would become even more pronounced in his later work. Both Lil Wallet Picture and Ed’s Song are examples of this. They also contain some vivid imagery which illuminates and clarifies their key themes. Ed’s Song also has one of Buckner’s finest melodies

In a sense, the characters in these songs resemble those in some of Townes Van Zandt’s songs and in several Raymond Carver’s stories. They are people with few possessions who move – often seemingly aimlessly – from place to place, frequently living in cheap motels and engaging in transient relationships which appear destined to fail even before they had begun.

Ariel Ramirez, the next choice, is probably Buckner’s best-known song. This is due to its rather incongruous appearances on a television advertisement for the Volkswagen Touareg and in the soundtrack to the 2008 movie The Strangers. Although the lyric is open to several different interpretations, it remains an extremely powerful song. It also features one of Buckner’s most powerful vocal performances. The album on which it appears, Since, also features a rockier sound than had characterised his previous albums. In this regard it showed his determination to break free from the type of categorisation/labelling which critics had attempted with his previous records.

This keenness to explore new musical territory was a key characteristic of Buckner’s 2004 album, Dents And Shells. He had long talked about his interest in ambient/instrumental music and this influence is strongly apparently throughout the record. His lyrics are also even more abstract in their character than they had been previously. This shift in his style did not, however, please everyone. It later led to a notoriously intemperate attack from Steve Earle who claimed that Buckner could not “write his way out of a wet paper bag”. It was perhaps significant that Steve had previously praised Buckner as being “great” in an interview in 1995. The shift in Earle’s opinion in relation to Buckner’s songwriting may reflect the way in which the latter had moved away from the Texan school’s emphasis on the ‘narrative’ song. As much as I like Steve’s music, on this occasion I think his take is very wide of the mark. Indeed, if Buckner’s music had lost something in terms of following a linear path, it had at the same time gained a new intensity and ability to evoke particular moods and atmospheres. This live version of A Chance Counsel – with the great indie guitarist, Doug Gillard – is a very good example of this:

This new manner of writing – with its rapid shifts in perspective and the use of increasingly unreliable narrators – has been characteristic of Buckner’s style since then. The musical form on his albums also shifted towards the use of more unexpected instruments including electric autoharp and marimbas. He also utilised electronic loops and feedback to steer his songs in unexpected directions. For me at least, these later Buckner albums are a clear influence on Bill Callahan’s more recent work. While this description might make his work seem rather inaccessible, this is not in fact the case.

The later selections here from his more recent albums are all ‘growers’ which amply repay repeated listening. Town, for example, is a superbly atmospheric ballad, which also features one of his characteristically fine vocal performances:

By contrast, The Tether And The Tie is a superb showcase for his fingerpicking skills and he remains highly underrated as a guitar player.

The story behind the making of Buckner’s 2011 album, Our Blood, is an extraordinary one, which features malfunctioning recording equipment, lost tapes and his being questioned as a possible suspect on a murder change (on which he was cleared, you will be glad to hear). Given this background, it was something of a triumph that the album turned out to be as good as it was. In fact, I would rank it as one of his finest. From it, I have chosen Escape, another of those classic enigmatic but deeply engaging songs which he seems to turn out with ease. It also features one of my favourite lines from his more recent work: Without a fight they’ll never know we’ve won.

The final selection, my bonus track, Beautiful Question, comes from Richard Buckner’s most recent CD, Surrounded, which was released in 2014. It shows his continuing ability to write a haunting melody and, as this list shows, the time is long overdue for a collection of new material from this mercurial, uneven, but at his best, brilliant songwriter.

 

 

 

 

 

Cuttings from the Tangle

Cuttings From The Tangle – Richard Buckner
(Black Sparrow Press 2020)

 

Richard Buckner official website

Richard Buckner bandcamp

The Richard Buckner Preservation Society

Songwriters on Process feature (2011)
“There’s something wrong when Ke$ha is filthy rich and Richard Buckner had to drive a forklift to make ends meet. It’s proof that talent isn’t a great equalizer …”

Interview with tincanland music blog (2011 on YT)

Weston Cutter interview for Kenyon Review (2011)

Joseph Burnett interviews Richard Buckner (2011)

Doug Freeman interview for The Austin Chronicle (2009)

Martin Williams interview for Comes with a Smile (2002)

Jennifer Nine interview for Comes with a Smile (2000)

Richard Buckner’s ‘Bloomed’ reassessed on RedSoapBox

Richard Buckner biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

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3 Comments

  1. Dave Stephens
    Apr 3, 2022

    Many thanks for helping me with a task that I set myself a decade or two ago. I was determined to research the alt-country scene which was emerging in the nineties. Buckner was on the list in my head but I never got to him, (a) because of lack of easily visible albums and (b) because of lower-hanging alt fruit which grabbed my attention. Thank you again for a very fine intro to the man.

  2. Glenn Smith
    Apr 3, 2022

    And damn…this stretch of 99, good grief what a song, what an album. I’m a Devolution and Doubt completist Andrew, it is such a brilliant record, 4AM, Home, Pull, Song of 27. One of those great artists that defies genres, the way those songs hang together, he’s talking to you and those ever so subtle melodies pick you up and take you somewhere quiet, where you can look at that lil wallet picture. The Devotion CD is going back in the car, thanks for the prompt, total respect on this one Andrew.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Apr 4, 2022

    Dave and Glenn thanks for kind words.
    Dave – was thinking when researching this piece that ‘Bloomed’ might be right up your alley.
    Glenn – agree that Devotion + Doubt is a superb record. Your comments on Richard’s style are so apt that I would probably have stolen them if I had seen them before I finished the piece. And speaking of Richard’s ability to cross genres there is also this.

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