Out & About
I don't imagine that Richard Buckner was asked to contribute to Return of the Grievous Angel, the Gram Parsons tribute album old flame Emmylou Harris curated a few years ago, a record that spearheaded the latest Parsons craze in the ever-expanding alt-country biosphere. I have no doubt that he could've held his own beside the set's higher-profile names--Beck, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, the Pretenders--but to me, Buckner's just too much of an oddball to fit into that club, his creaky, creepy songs too covered by southern-gothic cobwebs to make sense in the context of the California Kid's sun-kissed lullabies. But then that seems to be Buckner's terminal position: too dark to be a honky-tonker, too honest to be a balladeer, too weird to be a heartthrob.
Consider, for instance, his latest album, The Hill. A musical setting of early-20th-century writer Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, the record tells the stories of a city full of dead people orating from the grave, accompanied by collaborators Joey Burns' and John Convertino's (better known as Calexico) stark, difficult avant-twang soundscapes. That's not exactly the type of boy-loses-girl tropes more streamlined alt-country outfits like Dallas' own Old 97's have ridden to modest commercial returns, and that's exactly why Buckner released The Hill on Overcoat Records, a tiny boutique imprint run by Chicagoan Howard Greynolds, whose day job is doing press for the widely respected Thrill Jockey label.
Greynolds' cramped Chicago apartment is a far cry from the cushy corner offices of MCA, the major label for whom Buckner recorded two albums, 1997's excellent Devotion+Doubt and '98's prickly Since, on which members of the loose Thrill Jockey troupe played. (It's a small world, after all.) But it's the kind of situation that makes sense when you figure in Buckner's music, a sound like no other in his field, a sound like you'd expect to hear from someone who's seen both sides of the fence. A preternatural grasp on the existential ramifications of love and life and all that's never really been a marketable skill (unless you believe Robert Johnson did in fact sell his soul at the crossroads, or that Mick Jagger, a friend of Parsons, actually is the devil), so cut the man some slack: Rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite's gotta seem like a letdown when you're just barely outrunning the demons nipping at your heels.
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