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Hell and Hindsight

Richard Buckner

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Although Buckner's yet to make a klezmer record, with his signing to MCA for 1997's Devotion + Doubt he did dramatically shake up the Townes Van Zandt-troubadour box he'd been wedged into by the press. Generally considered his breakthrough album, it sees the songsmith's whiskey 'n' regret-soaked tunes colored by the simpatico playing of guests like Tom Waits guitarist Marc Ribot, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, and Calexico's Joey Burns. "[Buckner's] singing style has a lot to do with the way that his lyrics wash over you, and some of the images, feelings, and metaphors linger on after the song has played," says Burns. "I love that he embraces such dark themes in his writing and in the instrumentation." The album's "L'il Wallet Picture" makes a fine example; on the track, with lonesome pedal steel lurking in the distance, Buckner sadly savors a love gone lost: "Damn this stretch of 99, that takes so many lives / One of 'em was mine / Hand me that l'il wallet picture in 1985, one more time." Nineteen ninety-eight's Since (MCA Records) upped the avant-rock ante, roping in Tortoise drummer John McEntire, Golden Palominos vocalist Syd Straw, and Gastr del Sol guitarist David Grubbs.

It seemed, however, that MCA was beginning to chafe at its getting an arty indie rocker when it thought it had signed a country pop singer. Both releases were critically praised but neither did the numbers the label was looking for, and it showed Buckner the door—just as he was preparing an even more creatively confounding work. The Hill (2000, Overcoat Recordings) sets to one 34-minute musical track words from Edgar Lee Masters's 1915 Spoon River Anthology, a series of poetic epitaphs for the residents of a fictional small Midwestern town. "I just liked Masters's style, these short pieces about all these different people," explains Buckner. "But, yeah, I can see why MCA wouldn't have wanted a record like that. It was a pain in the ass being on a major label, but it was also good because it got me noticed." By now married to a drummer and based in Edmonton, Alberta, Buckner was touring incessantly. "I put 600,000 miles on my truck," he says.

But while the truck was built to last, it turned out the marriage, like so many, was not. After 2002's not-so-subtly titled Impasse (Overcoat) appeared, the newly detached Buckner landed in Brooklyn and inked with Merge Records. He made his debut for the indie giant with Dents and Shells (2004; with Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffee) and followed it with Meadow (2006). The technical problem-plagued Our Blood (2011), which features Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, came after he'd taken an extended studio break to tour and resettle in Kingston with his sheep-farmer girlfriend. "I'd recorded the basic tracks for Our Blood on a Roland 24-track workstation, but it broke down and parts of the music were lost," Buckner says, wincing at the memory. "I had to record it all over again. Then my laptop, with the new mixes and some writings on it, got stolen. It was a setback that ended up changing the entire realization of the idea. I recorded the whole album for a third time and tried to recreate the vibe, but I added all this other stuff that turned it into over-painted furniture: You couldn't tell what the original idea was anymore. Sometimes it's best to just hand things over to a mixer and put your trust in him, so that's what I did." In this case, the mixer was local producer Malcolm Burn (Emmylou Harris, Midnight Oil, Patti Smith), who capably brought out the music's understated, atmospheric quality.

But electronic meltdowns and laptop thefts weren't the only dramatic elements at play in the saga of Our Blood, whose title would turn out to be unsettlingly prescient. "I had literally just finished recording the music for the album on my home studio when there's a knock on the front door," Buckner recalls. "It's a cop who says there's been a murder in my neighborhood and wants to know if I'd seen anything suspicious, which of course I hadn't; I'd been working on this damn record all night. Then he tells me they'd found this body in a burning car and that the area near our house is a popular place for dumping bodies. So he thanks me and takes my number and leaves, and a couple weeks later I get a call from my landlord, who tells me the cops want to talk to me. I'm still not sure why they didn't just call me, I guess they lost my number. Anyway, after leaving three messages about it with the sheriff they finally tell me to come in. I figure it'd just be some casual, routine thing. But when I get there it's this basement interrogation room that they end up holding me in for a few hours, questioning me and doing the whole good cop / bad cop thing. I tried to make light of it, since I figured, being innocent, I didn't have anything to worry about. But they were really serious and it got really scary for a little bit. It made me see how in certain situations—I kept thinking of the West Memphis Three—people who are innocent fall into making false confessions. You get scared and feel the full weight of the law on you, even when you totally know you have nothing to be afraid of." Bizarrely, the constabulary came calling yet again to Buckner's front door while investigating what later became a well-publicized case—just as he was putting the final touches on Surrounded. "This woman was strangled right down the block," says the songwriter. "It was pretty creepy. After that, my girlfriend asked me, 'So is someone around here gonna get murdered every time you make a record?' And I'm, like, 'Shit, I hope not!'"

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