Yes, He’s a Long, Tall Texan: Guitarist Buck Meek of Big Thief Carries His Lone Star Pride on Tour and Beyond

You can't take Texas out of the man. Guitarist Buck Meek is in a Lone Star state of mind.
You can't take Texas out of the man. Guitarist Buck Meek is in a Lone Star state of mind. Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
“That was an exaggeration in the Texan tall-tale tradition,” guitarist Buck Meek says with a laugh. He’s referring to a statement made by his friend Mat Davidson in press notes stating that Meek is a 16th-generation Texan. However, he soon confesses to being an eighth-generation citizen of the Lone Star State, thus illustrating both his sense of humor and showing that the fib isn’t too far off the mark.

Now living in Southern California’s rich musical landscape of Topanga Canyon, Meek finds himself drawn to its natural beauty and wide-open spaces, which bring back memories of his upbringing.

“The more time I spend living outside of Texas, the more I find myself leaning on my Texas nature. I relate to it now more than I did growing up,” Meek says, adding that he grew up in Wimberley but spent a lot of time visiting family in Dallas.

Visiting a multitude of cities, states and countries has been a full-time job for Meek for most of his adult life as a musician. From his early days playing guitar in Texas roadhouses as a preteen to his current position as guitarist for acclaimed indie rock band Big Thief, Meek has kept a frenetic pace. It certainly won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

With the release of two critically acclaimed albums this year, May’s gracefully sculpted U.F.O.F. and this month’s grittier cousin, Two Hands, the band will be logging the miles and appearing in more higher profile spots than ever before. And, even before touching down in Texas for a series of shows next month, Meek absorbed his native land for several weeks as Big Thief camped out at Sonic Ranch Studios near El Paso to record the bulk of Two Hands.

Additionally, Meek has carved out a nice collection of solo work that harkens back to the early days of Big Thief but is still very much alive and well. His self-titled debut full-length is a swift, eclectic affair that touches on an array of styles and caught the attention of many folks in high places. There are plans for more music soon, which a slower paced schedule in his day job will allow room for.

The Observer caught up with the affable Meek by phone ahead of the band's Nov. 5 show at Trees, to discuss his songwriting methods, his road habits and the mutual admiration society he’s formed with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.

"The more I travel and the more places I live, the more I can relate to Texas." — Buck Meek

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Things have really taken off for you lately. How have you been able to balance your solo career with being in a band as vital and busy as Big Thief?
The first couple of years of Big Thief took most of my focus. When we made Masterpiece, everything caught fire quickly and we were gone touring 11 and 12 months of the year. At that point, I put my solo work on hold to give the band the life it was begging for. Now, it’s been a blessing because Big Thief has developed a world of its own. We have a really beautiful fan base and can tour less, like maybe five months out of the year. I’ve had a lot more space to focus on some of my solo work. I always bring my big Martin with me out on the road and put it to use for writing. I’ve got another solo album coming out in the spring or summer of 2020, too. It’s been important to everyone in Big Thief to have that personal balance, actually.

Where specifically do you go when you need to write a song?
Generally, where I can find privacy. In a van around other people it’s tough, but, this time around, Big Thief is touring in a bus, which is different. If I can wake up early, I’ll sometimes have a lounge area to myself and can spend some time with my guitar writing.

So, with the opportunity to scale back some on the touring with Big Thief, what does that mean in terms of you hitting the road in the context of your solo work?

I’ve done a lot of solo touring the last couple of years, but for this new record, I definitely want to bring my band out. I’ve got a beautiful band from New York City that played on the first record and is on the next one. These are all folks I’ve met since moving to New York in 2012. We were all part of the same community and ran in the same circles. Adam Brisbin is my guitar hero and Austin Vaughn is a great drummer and Mat Davidson from Twain is one of my favorite songwriters and plays bass in my band and now some pedal steel. So, yeah, this is my dream band.

Having spent so much time on the road, what are the some of your biggest personal challenges when you tour?
I love sleeping and think it’s so important, so obviously the way touring interferes with rest is something I dread about touring. And food, too. It was a learning curve in figuring out how to stay healthy on the road. I’ve gotten better about packing my own groceries and snacks. Dried fruit and oatmeal always work in a pinch.

Being a Lone Star State enthusiast, there are probably a plethora of Texas songwriters who have influenced you. Do you find yourself drawn to any particular artists from here, or those who embody the spirit of Texas?
Yeah, definitely. Like I said before, the more I travel and the more places I live, the more I can relate to Texas. Especially the people who were born in Texas but maybe break the rules a bit or have a more psychedelic or oblique angle on Texas. Those are my favorites. Terry Allen, particularly, has been a favorite of mine lately. He speaks so much about mysticism and the Native American and Spanish American culture. All the things that surround Texas and really define it. I love The Flatlanders and I grew up watching Ray Wylie Hubbard. I probably listen to Townes Van Zandt every single day. And Blaze Foley, too. Guy Clark, early Lyle Lovett, you know, all those people. You know, you can see people all over Texas that are legends playing little dives and clubs. I always try and get out to see music when I’m home.

You opened some shows for Jeff Tweedy earlier this year, including the one here in Dallas at The Majestic Theatre. How did the connection with him come about?

Oh, man, yeah. Jeff is so great. He reached out to Big Thief once when we were on tour in Chicago and he expressed how he was a fan of Masterpiece. He invited us over to The Loft [Wilco’s Chicago rehearsal space] and we became fast friends. Shortly after that, we collaborated with him on a Connie Converse cover called “There Is a Vine.” John Zorn asked us to be a part of this compilation of her covers and we asked Jeff to produce it and record it with us. We spent a whole week at The Loft working on that with him and that’s where we really deepened our friendship. We just kept up and he said he liked my solo record and then invited us out to open for him.

Was it intimidating playing the large-scale, sit-down theaters that he was booked in?

Yeah, it was so humbling. It really pushed me and I learned so much about how to guide an audience and maintain focus and intimacy with basically a big, black hole. From the stage, all you can see is this black, amorphous hole with just a couple of heads. But, you can feel a warm, singular mind. And playing solo with an acoustic guitar there’s no fixing anything. All you can do is guide people through a story or not. And, you’re facing that decision each night. But, I really learned so much from watching Jeff. It was so inspiring watching him because he’s just like this grand master of tragedy and comedy. He makes things so inclusive and conversational with his audience. It was really a master class in performance for me as a solo artist. I have so much love for him because he’s just so inclusive of up-and-coming artists and is just so gracious with all his resources and his time.

It seems that the rest of 2019 is full and your 2020 calendar is shaping up to be extremely busy, too. How do you envision the next year ahead?
I’d love to bring my solo project into a fully realized space. I also want to cultivate the home life because I’ve been living on the road for so long. In fact, a previous journalist asked me where I planned on going for vacation. I said that I just want to go home. And, of course, I just want to write and Big Thief for sure will continue to have more music because Adrienne [Lenker, Big Thief's lead singer] is from another planet. I feel like this band is the healthiest we’ve ever been interpersonally. We just love each other and it feels really strong. It takes work to get there in such a close environment, but we’ve just gotten deeper into it.
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Jeff Strowe now calls DFW home after stints living in Raleigh, North Carolina, and New York City. He enjoys writing about music, books, beer/wine and sports. His work is also featured in Glide Magazine and PopMatters, and he has written for No Depression.