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.
"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."
The album earned him stacks of critical praise but little in the way of sales, and even then Buckner describes growing tensions with MCA. "When I signed the contract, it began then," he says. "My A&R person quit the week I started recording the record. My manager quit as soon as the album was recorded and she got her check. I was on my own for about six months with a label head who just fucking hated me."
In retrospect, 1998's Since could only have made things worse. It's a fragmented, odd album, built around short sketches and the occasional straightforward rock song. Without a running theme to hold it together, Since is an inscrutable record that sounds a little bit country (Syd Straw added guest vocals) and a little bit post-rock (Tortoise's John MacEntire and Gastr Del Sol's David Grubbs contributed). "I took the songs I had and I think I put them in about as different a place as the songs were capable of going," he explains. "That's why I hired the guys I hired. ... Even while we were recording, there were points on a couple of songs where I really didn't know what was going on. It was a great exercise in gut instinct and all that crap. It's the record I'm most proud of."
By spring of last year, MCA had had enough of Buckner's crap. "The minute the contract was up, both sides were like, 'Fuck you, goodbye.' It was a mutual-hate situation." Before the two parted ways, however, Buckner got an eight-track recording deck out of the label, which he's using to record his next album by himself. Set for release later this year on Tucson-based Convent Records, the album is a song cycle based on Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters' collection of poems and monologues told by a variety of Midwestern characters and ghosts. The work is currently in the public domain, which spares Buckner a few legal hassles. "It's something I've been thinking about for a long time, and I finally had the chance to do it in the last couple of months. When I first started doing it, it was like, 'Let's see if I can do this.' I had to go through all the poems and see which would even make good songs ... I don't even think of them as Spoon River songs. I just think of them as my songs. The words are so amazing in those poems -- the stories and the moods, it just makes the songs better."
For his current tour, Buckner's hooked up with Alejandro Escovedo, another singer/songwriter with a back-and-forth relationship with country and a San Francisco past. The two will close out their shows jamming together, and share a pair of musicians: pedal steel player Eric Heywood from Son Volt and the Jayhawks and cellist Brian Standefer from Escovedo's band. The shared resources allow both musicians to economize, and also give Buckner a chance to rest. "This is the first time I've gone on tour and haven't had to drive myself around," he says. "It's really a treat to sleep in the back for a while."
Richard Buckner and Alejandro Escovedo perform Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 19 and 20, at 9 p.m. at Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St. (at Texas), S.F. Tickets are $10; call 621-4455.