By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Richard Buckner signed to a major label and all he got was a stupid eight-track recording console.
It wasn't surprising when word came out last spring that Buckner and his record company, MCA, had parted ways. In 1994, when Buckner called San Francisco home and headed the roots-rock band the Doubters, he traveled solo to Lubbock, Texas, and recorded Bloomed, an album very much in keeping with the Flatlanders-inspired outlaw country musicians who helped make it. With the altcountry movement booming at the time, the husky-voiced Buckner must've struck the label as a great find. But instead of playing it straight and being appropriately reverential to Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams, Buckner used the opportunity to make two angular records that only vaguely referred to country themes.
In hindsight, Buckner seems to have made the smart move, since the last two years have proven that altcountry is slowly becoming a moribund genre. Wilco -- not to mention Garth Brooks -- went pop; it became increasingly difficult to tell the difference between Whiskeytown and the Old 97s; Son Volt released its second chickenshit record in a row; the Bottle Rockets turned into Lynyrd Skynyrd; both K-Tel and Starbucks, not exactly trendsetting outfits, put out altcountry comps last year. The nail in the coffin: 1999's best Americana album, "alt" or no, was a bluegrass record by Dolly Parton.
Spoon River Anthology
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"I don't really listen to that much country," says Buckner from his home in Edmonton, Alberta, where he moved two years ago and now lives with his second wife. He says he got slapped with the altcountry tag "because I had pedal steel on some shit. I think if I didn't have pedal steel, none of that crap would've happened. I can't really figure it out myself."
Buckner was born in Fresno and studied creative writing at Chico State University, where his stories tended to irritate his teachers. "I don't want to overromanticize this, but I remember how repressed I felt having to use grammar," he says. "I knew the rules, but I wrote these things that I felt worked better, and I was always against grammar. When I started writing in college it was always a problem -- the professors don't really like that kind of stuff. It's just fun rearranging it in your own way."
There's a parallel between the authors Buckner read back then -- Richard Brautigan, E.E. Cummings, James Agee -- and the disjointed emotional narratives that inform his own work. With a keen eye for detail and wordplay that rivals Nicholson Baker and Sherwood Anderson, Bloomed spun tales that revolved around steamed mirrors, rainstorms, drive-away cars, and a "little SOMA room" where "the telephone was pouring blue," all given a traditional country backdrop. San Francisco moments crept into the songs: According to Buckner "the skirts of sweet Natoma" refers to women living on Natoma Street whom he and a friend were dating at the time. "We both had these life-changing, scary things -- girlfriends," he says. The quintessential moment of "This Is Where" doesn't need much additional explanation: "This is where we sat/ And this is where we kissed/ This is where you yelled/ At the Muni we missed."
The songs came out of his days with the Doubters, and also from time spent busking with other musicians in Union Square at night, where he'd "play for hours and hours until the cops ran us off or some freak came at us with a knife." While Buckner could write in country's singer/songwriter form, he credits Bloomed's twangy sound mainly to Lloyd Maines, the longtime producer of Texas bands, including Maines' daughter Natalie's group the Dixie Chicks. "When I did Bloomed," says Buckner, "I just took the songs in to Lloyd Maines and said, 'Help me do this.'" Recorded in four days and released in 1995, the album was seized upon by critics as an example of the next great thing in country, which led to his contract with MCA.
Details of Buckner's relationships and marriages wouldn't be worth mentioning if 1997's Devotion + Doubt wasn't such a harsh breakup album. Released on the heels of Buckner's divorce, it's already entered that small, exclusive club of great divorce albums like Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights. From its foreboding opening line ("He said 'I'll pull you down'/ She said 'Yeah, I know you will'") to its questioning closing line ("I'm still dreaming of who we were/ Though I may be miles away from her"), the album's an unvarnished and sometimes brutal catalog of tiny miseries and sleepless nights.
Far from Bloomed's Lubbock-styled tunefulness, Devotion sported a spare, quirky sound that felt like a traditional country album turned inside out. The narratives turned into dark and sweaty internal monologues, and the pretty pedal steel wasn't accompanying the songs so much as stabbing at them. Part of the credit for that goes to the members of Tucson, Ariz.'s Giant Sand, who've played an acid-stoked form of punk and folk since the mid-'80s. "When I hooked up with [producer] J.D. Foster to do [Devotion] with the Giant Sand guys in Tucson, we went in there without any ideas," says Buckner. "We just went, 'Let's try this right now,' and it was all completely improvised."