Richard Buckner first entered my consciousness in 1990, long before I knew his name. He worked as a clerk at A Cappella Books in Atlanta’s Little Five Points. I might have asked him a question once, I’m not sure. I do have this hazy recollection of a burly, rather sullen guy who sat behind the counter and sometimes fumbled with a guitar he kept there. But after a few months he was gone; he’d moved back to San Francisco, someone said.
Five years later, shortly after the release of his first recording, Bloomed, I got a different image of Buckner. This time he appeared as an extraordinarily gifted singer-songwriter, with a big, mysterious voice that seemed capable of evoking the subtlest nuances of love and loss, from a tender whisper to a tortured roar.
Watching him perform his song “Mud” at a bar a block from the bookstore, I could scarcely believe it was the same person. “Christ,” he growled, “How this life, from mud to miracle, is just the prettiest little burden.” It made me realize, all over again, that creativity can be an awfully curious thing.
Buckner soon signed with MCA and made two more discs, the devastatingly deconstructed Devotion & Doubt (1997) and the relatively more conventional Since (1998). Both were critically acclaimed, earning spots near the top on many best-of lists and glowing write-ups in Spin, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and even GQ. But, as so often happens, the sales didn’t match the kudos, and the label and the artist parted ways.
Over the years, I managed to see Buckner during several tour stops in Atlanta. Sometimes we shared late-night drinks with mutual friends at the infamous Clermont Lounge, or early-morning breakfasts at the equally entertaining Majestic Restaurant. One time we drove up to Forsyth County to visit the fledgling Americana station WMLB, where I watched him skulk into a dark corner of the studio, then turn around and light up the phone lines with a couple of songs from Devotion & Doubt. Afterward, we stopped at a funny second-hand store where he seemed to enjoy haggling with a peevish old lady over the price of a pair of pants.
Through those random encounters, I slowly began to learn Buckner’s back-story. “My dad was born in Arkansas, my mom’s parents were from Alabama and Texas, I was born in Fresno and my family lived all up and down Highway 99 in Central and Northern California,” he told me.
Other sources confirmed what I’d suspected; his formative years were even more nomadic than he usually let on. “My dad worked for Firestone,” he told Sarah Vowell for her 1999 GQ piece. “And he was being transferred constantly, twice a year, once a year. On top of that, my parents were always separating, breaking up and getting back together again. So we’d get transferred. They’d break up. One of them would move again; then they’d get back together; then they’d move again. So three or four times a year sometimes.”
Vowell easily connected the dots between Buckner’s wandering childhood and his subsequently peripatetic life and art. The real wonder is that his condensed, cryptic lines — in which he’s chronicled marriage and divorce and the vagaries of a seemingly endless string of romantic entanglements — are never precious. Rather, they’re always tightly coiled, like a watch spring, ready to explode into some time warp of existential terror. “And the one place I wanna go, anywhere but home,” he utters in a typically emblematic couplet. “Damn this stretch of 99, that takes so many lives,” he howls in another. “One of them was mine.”
Last year in Atlanta, over something yellow that could have been an omelet, I asked Buckner what he was going to do now that he didn’t have a recording contract. He surprised me by saying that he was working alone in his home studio on a song cycle based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. I imagined him up in Alberta, where he’d moved to be with his latest love, Penny, freezing and dreaming up melodies to go with someone else’s words.
I vaguely, but not too fondly, remembered Spoon River from a high school English class, and secretly thought the project sounded a bit daft. Why would someone who writes such amazing contemporary verse want to parrot a poet who’d all but passed from the canon of American literature? The answer, I found out, was, like so much about Buckner, a paradox — wrapped in an uncanny artistic sensibility, for sure, but primarily the result of happenstance.
Buckner’s take on Spoon River was finally released in October. It’s titled The Hill, after the poem that opens the Anthology, and is presented as a single, surging, 34-minute musical piece. Soon after I got my copy of the CD, I decided I should also get a copy of Spoon River. Naturally, I went to A Cappella Books, where I picked up an annotated edition from the University of Illinois Press edited by John E. Hallwas, and sat down to read.
“Spoon River Anthology (1915; 1916) is widely known but not well understood,” Hallwas writes in his introduction. “No other volume of American poetry made such an immediate impact, and few have been so influential. Composed of monologues spoken by the dead in a Midwestern cemetery, it was conceptually stunning; focused on the inner lives of even the violent and the sexually maladjusted, it was shockingly frank; written in flatly realistic and often ironic free verse, it was stylistically innovative; and concerned with frustration and struggle, and conflict in America, it was an ambitious portrayal of cultural decline firmly grounded in the specifics of community life.”