Like many singer-songwriters with roots-music sensibilities who emerged in the ’90s, Richard Buckner was initially embraced by the alt-country camp. Nevertheless, the enigmatic artist soon outlined his own realm of moody, art-damaged country-folk and stirring, fractured poeticism. The California native bowed in 1995 with Bloomed, which he recorded in Lubbock with that Texas town’s eminent producer/pedal-steel player (and Dixie Chick dad), Lloyd Maines. While the critical ruckus it garnered attracted a major-label deal for Buckner’s subsequent effort, he sounds vocally unsettled, even adenoidal, here; the mannered twang is a far cry from the intimate and deeply bruised timbre that would become his hallmark. Nevertheless, the album, a more straight-ahead alt-country effort than his later work, is clearly marked by Buckner’s remarkable way with a lyric and sentiment on such morosely lovelorn highlights as “Blue and Wonder” and “Six Years.” (The 1999 reissue adds five solid solo acoustic recordings.)
While touring behind Bloomed, Buckner peddled the cassette-only Unreleased. Most of the tracks are paler versions of songs that would end up on his first three albums; notable, however, are three recordings with his earlier country-rock band, the Doubters.
Devotion & Doubt, a gut-wrenching song cycle that deserves a place in the divorce-album hall-of-fame alongside Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, is the true source of Buckner’s reputation. A withering glance back at the ruins of a whirlwind first marriage (“Vows abound in infidels,” he howls in “Ed’s Song”), it benefits from a road-seasoned husk new to his baritone. Producer J.D. Foster wisely mikes Buckner so intimately that it seems like he’s uttering his pin-drop sentiments in the listener’s ear. Southwestern indie rock legends Joey Burns and John Convertino (Giant Sand, Friends of Dean Martinez, Calexico), aided by Lloyd Maines, Marc Ribot and the late Champ Hood, add a sprung, surreal edge to the shell-shocked hush of the album. The spare, reflective instrumentation allows Buckner’s words — sturdily crafted strands of rhythmic poetry that nonetheless seem to tumble out of their own accord — to breathe. (“Wasted and well-spent, taken and once-wrecked / Oh, you’re better than this and that / I thought I was cured of any last chance / Unfastened and floored, now all I want is just a lil’ nothin’ more,” he mutters significantly in “4 AM.”) Buckner works out a compelling mythology around his own emotional landscape, whether musing on his fallen marriage or — as in the album’s best track, “Lil’ Wallet Picture” — the highway of his peripatetic youth. (“Damn, this stretch of 99 that takes so many lives / One of them was mine / Hand me that lil’ wallet picture in 1985 one more time.”)
Since shakes off the previous outing’s downer trip, with many of the tracks fleshed out into full alt-rock bluster. There’s still plenty of acoustic rumination, but the album is characterized by such rave-ups as “Jewelbomb,” “Believer” and “Goner w/ Souvenir.” It’s rare to hear Buckner’s muse in a band-driven context, and guest guitarist Dave Schramm’s uncanny post-rock twang whips the aforementioned tracks into wheeling, upbeat elegies. (John McEntire of Tortoise, Gastr del Sol and the Sea and Cake plays drums, while Son Volt sideman Eric Heywood adds pedal steel.) “Goner w/ Souvenir” became a minor college radio hit in the summer of 1998, but Since was as far as he’d go on MCA.
It’s a tribute to Buckner’s rugged individualism that he emerged from his major-label dance to put together The Hill, one sprawling, 34-minute track based on early 20th century poet Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (character pieces in which the dead in an Illinois graveyard ruminate on their often tragic lives). Buckner wrote music to the lyrics, with some of the characters represented solely by instrumental interludes. He’d been tinkering with the idea for years, and an 8-track tape recorder from MCA gave him the impetus to see the impulse through. The moody ruralism and tragic themes fit snugly in his canon; he crafts some gorgeously heart-piercing numbers from the ancient grief of such poems as “Julia Miller” and “Elizabeth Childers” and adds various sorts of haunting ephemera, including slow, rusty organ and wisps of feedback. Those fearless enough to plunge in will find some startling moments. “Amanda Barker” (28 minutes in) erupts with an acoustic guitar furiously pounding out a haint-drenched Appalachian rhythm while something like an old steam radiator hisses in the background. Buckner howls Barker’s accusations from beyond the grave at a husband who made her pregnant knowing full well she could not “bring life” without dying: “I proclaim from the dust / That he slew me to gratify his hatred,” sings Buckner as Barker, chomping down on the word “hatred” just as a flurry of accusatory White Light/White Heat guitar-skronk rouses a jury of ghosts.
Sold mainly at shows, Richard Buckner consists of solo acoustic renditions of 11 songs, most of which appeared on his MCA albums, recorded in 1996.
Impasse was recorded at the tail end of another marriage. (He had lived with second wife Penny Jo in Edmonton, Alberta for several years, between voracious bouts of touring.) He recorded the album at home in Canada, playing virtually everything (except for some vigorous drumming by the missus) himself. It breaks no new ground, especially for listeners accustomed to Buckner’s unique meter and vocal dynamics, warbling his way around a note before landing on it, and using flats, howls and abrupt volume shifts to stirring effect. The Impasse-ette EP combines acoustic versions of three songs from the album with three new tracks.