The Wanderer

Photo courtesy Merge RecordsIt's probably possible to dislike Richard Buckner,but it's hard. Even if his sorta folky/country/rock music (Okay to call it alt.-country, Buck? “I don't give a fuck,” he says cheerfully) ain't your thing: if you have a conversation with this down-to-earth guy and don't at least respect his way of seeing the world, you're probably a dick.

Besides, Buckner may be this generation's Nick Drake: subdued desperation and melancholy articulated through breathy vocals, sparse acoustic songs, and music in a Volkswagen commercial. Except Buckner seems more equipped to handle the rigors of life. With some divorces, twice as many albums as Drake, and years of crisscrossing the continent under his belt, he's proved he's here to stay—even if he's tapping the same raw nerve Drake tapped too well for his own good.

He showed up roughly 10 years ago, with a solo album produced by country producer/Dixie Chick sire Lloyd Maines. Last month, he released Dents and Shells, featuring King Coffey of acid-damaged punk band the Butthole Surfers on drums. That's a juxtaposition that sums up Buckner's odd place in the genre-taxonomy exercise as well as anything: “I have kids in Mohawks buying the CDs, and I have people who are 80 years old coming to the shows with their kids,” he says. “I can't figure it out for the life of me.”

But it's Buckner's personality that's more compelling than trying to stretch his haunting ballads across a vivisection mat. He's a wanderer. In the past decade, he's lived in San Francisco; Alberta, Canada; Austin, Texas; and now Brooklyn, New York. “I get around quite a bit,” he says. “I'm restless.” And far more often than not, tour is just Buckner crossing the continent all by himself, performing without other musicians even though most of his albums used backing bands. And performing makes him into a curmudgeon sometimes, like a few nights ago when a promoter told him not to sit down to play during sound check. (“I don't give a fuck about whatever you envision for your dumb-ass club in whatever town,” he says).

“Your environment plays into what you're doing,” he says. “My car breaking down [Buckner's been interrupting the interview to answer calls about a catalytic converter]—not to be callous about love or relationships with other human beings—but it factors in in the same way in the long run: an environmental situation.”

But that environment is everywhere in Buckner's songs, a reflection of the continent he's traveled across again and again: haunted, wide-open spaces; maybe a ragged steel guitar solo on the horizon; a piano line rushing up from nowhere like a city-limit sign; the heartbeat of the small town in the welling toms and country pap-pap drums; and the rare intersection where all of them come together. A long and winding metaphor, yeah, but there's a lot of time to think on those drives. A lot of time alone, you know?

“When I've heard somebody else do one of my songs, I think, 'That sounds like a real song,'” he says. “'Cause when I sing it, it doesn't sound like a song to me because I made it.”

It's a weird thing to say. But then he's a guy whose life is based on distance. So it won't sound real until the tribute album comes out, though?

“Yeah,” he says, laughing. “When I'm dead and really start selling records.”


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