Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Richard Buckner’s music defies convention. Largely defined as rural country yet containing elements of rock and folk and yielding lyrics full of imagery and symbolism, his songs, according to critics, are not for the traditionally minded listener. A “mesmerizing and transporting” artist, “Buckner is far too peculiar to become a star,” expressed Michael McCall of Nashville Scene magazine. “His songs don’t have choruses, and they unfold to a drowsy tempo. The music perfectly fits his words and his voice, but it’s far from anything currently heard on radio or on video channels. Nor will it appeal to everyone. Like the more abstract plays of Edward Albee or Jean Paul Sartre, Buckner’s music requires careful listening and a willingness to ignore conventions.” A singer, songwriter, guitarist, and cult figure on the alternative music scene, Buckner, in spite of his lack of mainstream support, has garnered critical accolades for his work as well as respect among fellow musicians.
Born in 1964 in Fresno, California, Buckner grew up in a family that moved and split up frequently, quite possibly accounting for the sense of wanderlust and introspection found in his compositions. “We moved three or four times a year throughout the Central Valley,” he told Spin magazine contributor Jeff Salamon.
Born in 1964 in Fresno, CA; son of a salesman. Education: Studied English at Chico State University.
Began playing guitar and writing songs in college; moved to Atlanta, GA, where his song writing abilities flourished, c. 1989; moved back to San Francisco, early 1990s; formed the Doubters, 1993; released debut solo album Bloomed in the U.S., 1995; released Devotion + Doubt, 1997; released Since, 1998; released The Hill, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —MCA Records, 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608, (818) 777-4000.
“It was a combination of my dad, who worked in sales for Firestone, being transferred a few times a year, and then my folks always splitting up and getting back together. He’d get transferred, they’d split up, move to different towns, then get back together, then he’d transfer again, over and over and over.” Although constant uprooting seems not the ideal way to spend one’s childhood, the relocating did provide Buckner with certain advantages over his peers. “Moving around so much makes you a real chameleon; it makes your adaptability skills very honed.”
Likewise, even as an adult, he continued to move around more than most, always clinging to the idea of being the new kid in town that he had grown accustomed to in his youth. “I crave being away and moving on,” Buckner added. “I like staying in some motel somewhere I’ve never been, knowing the phone won’t ring. I like that a lot. It keeps me completely inward, completely focused; the isolation helps me get some good writing done.” For example, Buckner in 1996 retreated to Bellingham, Washington, where he focused on songs for his second album, 1997’s Devotion + Doubt. “We found this place, pretty much a one-room cabin on three acres on the bay—there were woods behind it, and you couldn’t see any people,” he recalled. “But right after we got up there, my wife and I split up. So there I was alone, working in a bar, running out of money, running out of shifts at the bar, running out of f***ing firewood for the wood-burning stove. I wound up selling my furniture, so I was kind of this crazy hippie hillbilly sitting around an empty one-room cabin all day writing …. The record would have been a lot different if I hadn’t been up there. It was actually a great thing, a perfect place to go off the deep end. It was like a pure form of breakdown.”
Amid all the uncertainty that surrounded his childhood and, in turn, influenced his adult life, Buckner discovered his creative side at an early age. “I’ve always kind of been artistic,” he revealed to writer/poet William S. Burroughs in an interview for SMUG. “I was a big drawer and painter as a kid.” Nonetheless, he would not fully unveil his gift for music until his adult years. “There was a guitar around the house, but nobody played it,” he continued. “I really didn’t start playing ‘til around when I got out of high school. I was drawn, not so much to songwriting, but the guitar, first. I didn’t really start songwriting ‘til my last two years of college. None of the songs from them come close to making it to the kind of stuff I do now.”
Around the age of 26, Buckner’s style of songwriting began to take shape, lending itself to the kind of music he now pursues as a professional musician. Several circumstances triggered these changes upon graduating from college, as he explained to Burroughs. After completing his studies in English at Chico State University in Northern California, he played locally for a couple of years in San Francisco with a friend he lived with, experimented with four-tracking, and wrote songs. Then, following a major earthquake, Buckner in 1989 (some sources say 1990) moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and worked in a bookstore for a year. This move proved a major catalyst for his career, as his songwriting abilities flourished. “Everybody’s got their magical turnstile in their life where they just take a drastic corner and start going a whole other way,” he explained. “It was probably a combination of a few things—being super-ready for it, being as far away from home as I’d ever been in my life, and being not really attached to anybody at all. I kind of thought of myself as an orphan, or somebody without any strings at all, really separate. And I was reading a lot of really important stuff, like Henry Miller and Carver and D.H. Lawrence. Atlanta’s a really great town too.”
After firing his musical imagination in the Southeast, Buckner returned to California in the early-1990s and soon settled into San Francisco’s alternative music scene, helping to establish the Bay Area as a hotbed for country music that didn’t quite jibe with the traditions of Nashville. In the city’s local bars and smaller venues, he usually played country-rock arrangements as the leader of the Doubters, a group he formed in 1993 that augmented the standard rock lineup with fiddle and steel guitar. Buckner’s grandparents were from the South—Arkansas, Texas, and Alabama—and the music of the region, including spending time in Atlanta, had a profound impact on his own personal style. “As far as the songs I still use and come back to, they’re songs I started writing when I was in Georgia,” he informed Kurt Wolff of Spin. But while Buckner cites influences such as Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt, and Peter Case as significant influences, he also credits alternative artists such as R.E.M., the Replacements, Giant Sand, and Pavement—who all borrow from traditional roots music—for inspiring him to bend the rules.
Despite his success with the Doubters, Buckner opted to record solo for his 1994 debut album entitled Bloomed, a critically acclaimed predominantly acoustic collection of original songs steeped in the traditions of southern country and rural folk. With Bloomed (released first in Germany and then in the United States on Dejadisc in 1995; in 1999, Slow River Records reissued the album with bonus tracks), Buckner offers mournful laments, a weary wanderlust, and a back-porch ambience that evokes the prairies around Lubbock, Texas, placing him firmly in the camp of maverick Texas singer-songwriters such as Van Zandt, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, and, though to a lesser extent, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. In fact, Buckner recorded the album in Lubbock with Hancock himself guesting on harmonica under the guidance of producer Lloyd Maines, who has also worked with Hancock, Allen, Gilmore, Uncle Tupelo, Robert Earl Keen, and Joe Ely. “West Texas has grown some of the most influential music ever made,” said Buckner, explaining why he decided to record in Lubbock, as quoted by Dejadisc. “Bob Wills, Buddy Holly, Butch Hancock…on and on. I went there to roll around in the dirt to try and get some under my nails.” In addition to Texas musicians, many also likened Buckner on Bloomed to legendary Los Angeles country-rocker Gram Parsons, particularly in his more vivid, gutsier pieces like “Gauzy Dress in the Sun” and “Rainsquall.”
However, it was alternative circles, not country audiences, who embraced Buckner’s music and unique perspective. “His sound may be composed of largely traditional elements,” wrote Richie Unterberger for Rock: The Rough Guide, “but he owes his allegiance to the rural country traditions of the backwoods and the mountains, not the pop factory of Nashville. His lyrical vision is in the contemporary rock and folk singer-songwriter tradition, concerned with individual expression, rather than market-friendly comforting homilies.” As a press release from Dejadisc further commented: “A distinctive songwriter who populates his songs with mismatched lovers, tortured souls and drunken losers, Buckner takes his listeners on an eerie, moody, almost haunting trip through a landscape of naked emotions and intimate encounters.”
Signing a new recording deal with MCA Records, Buckner returned with his second album, Devotion + Doubt, in 1997, this time enlisting J.D. Foster, a veteran of the Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, music scenes, as his producer. Another effort that successfully bridged the gap between his adopted southern roots and his California upbringing, Devotion + Doubt, though recorded with fuller band arrangements (compliments of Maines, members of Giant Sand, and avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot), employed musical and lyrical devices similar to those found in Bloomed. Throughout, noted McCall, “Buckner proves extraordinarily gifted at imbuing his words with meaning…. Downhearted on the surface, the songs on Devotion + Doubt disturb the mind yet settle deep in the heart. Buckner sets his toner switch on deep blue and leaves it there, but he colors his lyrics with vibrant images that make every gently murmured word pulse with emotion. Although he’s offbeat in every sense, nearly every song nails a mood that enlivens his poetic point of view.”
The following year saw the release of Since, produced by Foster and recorded at Baby Monster in New York City. Although overlooked by pop and country radio, Buckner again garnered rave reviews. “With his deep, gently blurred voice and wandering minor-chord songs, Buckner has created his most intensely beautiful and evocative album with Since. He’s taken the spare sounds and textures of Devotion + Doubt, a record lauded by many but heard by few, and draped them behind a dense sonic scrim,” concluded Tod Nelson for Amazon.com. “In the past Buckner has relied on his voice to carry the hefty emotional freight of his lyrics of loss and desperation, but here, with a band that includes, in Buckner’s words, ‘all the musicians I dreamed of recording with,’ he is free to liberate his baritone, and it slips and slides wonderfully throughout.”
In the fall of 2000, Overcoat Recordings released Buckner’s fifth solo effort, The Hill. A departure for Buckner and a wholly original album both in words and music, The Hill was written and recorded as a song cycle based on poet Edgar Lee Master’s 1915 classic Spoon River Anthology. Here, Buckner presents the album as one long piece that flows like a continuous story rather than as a series of individual songs; it features backing from the band Calexico. “Few albums,” concluded Nelson, “are this complex, evocative, and stunning. The Hill is Buckner’s tour de force.” Although he relies on another person’s words, Buckner lets his own voice and emotions radiate. Throughout his career, he continuously painted his lyrics from both personal experience and his imagination. “Even if I’m writing about something fictional, I’ll bring my own emotions into it,” he explained, as quoted by Dejadisc. Similarly, as he noted in the interview with Wolff, “Everybody writes about what they’re doing. Where they’re living. The Carter Family wrote about their Clinch Mountain Home. I write about missing the bus.”
Bloomed, Dejadisc, 1995; reissued with additional tracks, Slow River, 1999.
Devotion + Doubt, MCA, 1997.
Since, MCA, 1998.
The Hill, Overcoat, 2000.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editor, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 16, 1995; April 11, 1997.
Billboard, February 8, 1997.
Boston Globe, June 10, 1999.
Nashville Scene, March 1997.
Rolling Stone, April 17, 1997.
Spin, May 1995; June 1997.
Village Voice, April 29, 1997; December 2, 1997.
Washington Post, January 2, 1998; October 23, 1998.
A Fan Page for Richard Buckner, http://www.geocities.com/~wolf-eyes/buckner.html (November 18, 2000).
"Buckner, Richard." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 10, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/buckner-richard
"Buckner, Richard." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved December 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/buckner-richard
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