There’s a fine line between intimate expression and melodrama, and Richard Buckner toes that line. His songs gracefully walk the tightrope between beauty and tragedy, leaving a lot up to the imagination. They’re full of personal references and insider information, but it doesn’t seem to matter. People identify in their own way.
“Everyone’s interested in somebody else’s situation,” Buckner says. “People want to know what the situation was and how we reacted to it. You’re curious. You want to know, ‘How did that guy deal with it? What happened to him in what way?’ ”
In Buckner’s songs, often the situation is a moment of personal crisis and/or rapture. Like his favorite movies such as Last Exit To Brooklyn andLeaving Las Vegas , which he mentions he recently saw for the second time, Buckner often aims to “capture the characters at this point, right before they go over. They’re just teetering and you get their experiences right before they fuckin’ go over the edge. …. People want to know, when you’re at the edge, what are you going to do?”
These days, Richard Buckner finds himself at the edge — of breaking through to a wider audience with his music. His debut album Bloomed, which came out in 1994 on Germany’s Glitterhouse label and last year on Dejadisc, recently turned up on Spin magazine’s list of the Top 20 Albums of 1995, awkwardly sandwiched between the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters. The new year finds him being seriously courted by a major label, even though Bloomed racked up significantly more critical acclaim than it did sales figures. Not that Buckner seems to care much about selling records or moving up to the big-label ranks. “All I want to do is get back to my obsessiveness,” he says.
To Buckner, songwriting is like keeping a journal; it’s how he puts the world in perspective. “It’s worse than any drug. You keep doing it out of necessity, especially if you’re any kind of a journal keeper at all, or you’ve still got any desire to keep reinventing your own language and keep your own spirits intact. For me anyway. And that’s where writing comes in. That’s the only reason I write, so that I feel like I’m keeping myself together. There are images I have now in my songs and I know it’s shit I would have forgotten, but now I have this permanent record of what went on.”
In “22″, a song on Bloomed, Buckner set out to write a one-chord mountain tragedy song about the Marysville (California) Flood Of ’55. He found that without personal interest or experience, he couldn’t get into it. “I ended up writing about a semi-autobiographical point in my life where I thought I wanted to die,” Buckner says. “I created a character and a situation that had this very deep center that had a lot to do with me. I’ve had people come up to me and talk to me about their very personal experiences. I love when songs like that make people feel better about what they went through. Not only that somebody else went through it, but also that it’s cool, it’s fine to go through that, because if you live through it, then there you are. And you’re a lot brighter than somebody who hasn’t lived through it, or hasn’t experienced it even.”
In both his music and his life, Buckner never seems settled or content. When he was growing up, his father was a ’60s golden boy salesman, so his family moved constantly from one small town in Central California to another. For years, as a pattern, his father got transferred, his parents broke up, his parents reunited. To this day, Buckner remains rootless. “I’m really happy when I’m not somewhere for long periods of time.” As an adult, his longest stint was in San Francisco, but most recently, he lived on the Lummi Indian Reservation near Bellingham, Washington, a town he discovered while on tour.
Now, he’s playing a series of mini-tours, and when he’s done he’ll once again be homeless. “I don’t feel like I’m going to move back to San Francisco. I could move anywhere. I might just find some place when I’m on the road and take a liking to it. If I hadn’t been married at the time when I was down in Lubbock, Texas (where he recorded Bloomed a couple years ago), I would have moved there right then and there. I thought it was a really beautiful little tiny little weird town.”
He also spent some time in Atlanta, where, he says, he finally came alive. “I just kind of exploded. I just kind of fell apart in a really great way and I’m still suffering from it. I just fucking fired off a launch pad in Atlanta,” he says. “Song Of 27″, a spine-tingling elegy scheduled to be included his yet-to-be-recorded new album, is about Buckner driving back from Atlanta to California, and saying, “please let me keep this up, please let me keep this.”
Originally, Buckner intended his next release to be a concept album based around his family, a la Terry Allen’s Juarez or Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. He ended up scrapping the idea, however; some of the songs were too close to home, and some of the family members still alive. “I haven’t seen my family in a couple of years, actually. I’m really distant from them. But if I wanted to say it to them, I’d just say it to them. I don’t want to do it in the form of a record. I think that’s really pansy.”
If all goes according to the current plan, his upcoming album will have some of the less-injurious of these songs, as well as a batch of newer ones. “I have about 20 songs that are totally ready to go. I’ll really get to pick the cream for the sophomore slump record ….trying to keep it from being a slumper at all.” Some of it will be recorded with his band the Doubters; much of it will be similar to Bloomed. And of course, there will be pedal steel. “Steel is my sucker instrument. Anything with slide on it, I fall apart. I’m always going to have any kind of steel at all on all my records. Always. It’s going to be the rule.”
Besides obvious influences such as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Peter Case and Townes Van Zandt, Buckner cites Giant Sand, the Dirty Three and Pavement as inspirations who have taught him “about deconstructing a song and putting it together in a more perfect way.” Buckner even covers a Pavement tune, “Here”, in some of his live performances.
Not surprisingly, Buckner often is inspired by authors as much as by musicians. One of his favorite Raymond Carver collections is the series of poems written right when Carver knew he was dying of cancer. “With each poem he wrote, they included a portion of each story he was reading at the time — as a reference point — also knowing the whole time that he was dying of cancer and that he was totally in love with his wife. There’s one line where Carver says, ‘Just when he thought he’d never write another poem, she began brushing her hair.’ I just break down at that. At the very edge. You’re capturing somebody that’s right on the brink and there’s some amazing beauty in that.”
For a writer, finding the right words can turn a cliche into something completely singular, a feat at which Richard Buckner is expert. “I don’t want to say anything anyone’s ever said,” he explains. “It’s my own experience. I only want to say it in my own way.”
So now he makes up his own words. “I have a song called ‘Fater’ — F-A-T-E-R. It’s about somebody who believes in fate too much, and I call her a ‘fater’ in the song. Vic Chesnutt talks about ghosties. Nobody says the word ghosties ever but he says it and you know exactly what he’s talking about.
“It’s the only way to express yourself sometimes because the English language is so stupid and ridiculous. Of course you have to break those rules.”