I got a chance to talk with Richard Buckner before his show in Carrboro, NC opening for Son Volt earlier this year. He was supporting his brand new CD Devotion + Doubt which had just been released on MCA. While Son Volt was doing their soundcheck we grabbed a spot beneath a tree out in the parking lot, enjoyed the spring weather and talked about songwriting, oldtime music and the new album.
Steve Gardner: So, how's the tour with Son Volt been going so far?
Richard Buckner: It's been going good. Son Volt's audience's are sometimes a little challenging because they are waiting for the rock band, but it's been great anyway. I'm sharing Eric Haywood, their steel player with them on this tour, so it is nice having someone else up there on stage with me.
Gardner: I've seen you in San Francisco a few different times, who is that who plays steel for you there?
Buckner: I've used a couple different guys, one's name is Ryan Rosenberg and lately I've been using David Phillips who's a guy who has played with Tom Waits and Stephen Yearkey, but I really don't use anyone around San Francisco anymore because I am just not there enough. I'm only there for a month or two at a time and when I do a show there now I just do it alone.
Gardner: Is that Tom Waits connection how you got Marc Ribot on this album?
Buckner: No, I really don't have a connection with Tom Waits. J.D. Foster who produced the new album has worked on a lot of Ribot projects and they are buddies. We needed a guitar player for a couple of the songs so we asked him to come down.
Gardner: Are you based in California now?
Buckner: Well, not really. My stuff is there and that is where I go back to, but I'm really trying not to move back to San Francisco. I'm actually trying to move down to Tuscon, Arizona.
Gardner: You were up in Washington for a while right?
Buckner: I moved about there and lived for about four or five months about a year and half ago. I moved up to a one-room cabin outside of the town of Bellingham on the Lumi Indian Reservation. I went there to get some work done and I did get a lot of writing done. A lot of what is on the new album was done there.
Gardner: How did Washington affect your songwriting as compared to San Francisco?
Buckner: Well, I have a lot of friends in San Francisco, it's a very familiar territory. It's a real urban environment...where I was living in Washington was in the woods, near a bay during flood season. The flood waters were coming up to my door, I was running out of wood, there was no furniture in the place. I was like some crazy hippie hillbilly pacing around the cabin in his union suits and boots trying to keep warm and get some writing done. It was a completely different experience and it was actually cool because I got a lot of privacy whether I liked it or not. I could also really switch my hours around, which I like to do, by writing all night and sleeping all day because it was more quiet out in the woods.
Gardner: Did you ever feel to forced to write since you were in a place specifically designed to write songs?
Buckner: No, if I ever have a chance to really set up shop and get some writing done I really have a good discipline, to the point where it is not actually discipline it is just the way I do it. If I have a place where I can go and write (and that place within the house changes throughout the year) I'll go there and I'll go there an not think about anything else. If I have a period of time where I can go and work I will work all day. I'll get up from the desk a couple of times but I just love to write, I love to edit and work on the four-track. It's not a problem. I could never have too much time on my hands.
Gardner: I noticed that the songs on the newer album aren't the type of songs that have just been thrown down into a notebook. I can tell you spent some time with them. A lot of song lyrics out there are just that, lyrics, but yours come a lot closer to poetry...
Buckner: Well, something I've been doing lately is that the songs come out of my journals. I got about ten in my truck right now that are there so I can go back and reference them when needed. What's been happening lately is that I've been rearranging the finished thing...even before it is completely finished. I'll put it down, as far as I have this complete thought, and I know I have parts in it that I want to edit and change around. But as I am doing that I will also change the structure of the sentences and the way the whole piece fits together. As a matter of fact, a lot of the stuff that is going to be on the next record is more in paragraphs, and you discover things about the words and the ways that you want to use the rhythm of the words within the songs and you rearrange them in an order that you hadn't thought of at first. I like to do that -- I like to screw myself up as much as possible. It's like on the new album where I use new instruments that I really don't know much about. I did that on purpose because I know from all the 4-track tapes I have at home that when I use unfamiliar instruments I come out with melodies that I wouldn't have thought of any other way. And it is the same way with the rhythm of words, I do that intentionally because it is fun and I like rearranging things like that.
Gardner: Are you the type of writer who writes because you have to...is it a the most natural way for you to express yourself?
Buckner: Yes. That's what I was doing before I did my first record. I'd say only a quarter of what I write goes into songs, the rest stays in whatever else -- journals, poetry, character sketches, little notes I've made to myself. I'm just starting to use the stuff in terms of more traditional poetry instead of song. Some of it is coming out as separate, and it is coming out naturally as that so I am starting to set aside certain pieces that I know won't be songs and I know will stay as they are and hopefully one day would be to get them published which was a dream of mine when I got out of college ten years ago. I'd still like to do that but what I am really thinking about now is the music.
Gardner: Were you an English major in college?
Buckner: Yeah, Creative Writing. B.A. One of those English B.A.'s!! Woo!
Gardner: So when you really got interested in writing was it due to music, or just writing in general?
Buckner: Just writing. Before I was doing that I was into drawing and painting as a kid. Then in high school I started to get more into writing due to a really amazing teacher I had in high school. It wasn't until after college and I moved down to Georgia and worked in a bookstore that I really was around books all day long and it happened pretty naturally that I got into writing more.
Gardner: One song I really like off the new album is "Fater." Since I'm a big oldtime music fan this unaccompanied song really caught my attention. You don't hear much of that in country music nowadays...how did that come about?
Buckner: It came about through listening to a lot of oldtime music. In the house back home me and my roommate from the Crooked Jades have speakers all over the house and are constantly blasting oldtime or bluegrass. I'm a big fan of Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley. That's pretty much where I got it, mainly from those two guys. Y'know there is that Ralph Stanley album Almost Home, which is all a capella that I play all the time. It's one of my top ten albums of my life. Another one is The Watson Family on Smithsonian which is a big favorite of mine. So it came pretty organically. It's one of those songs that came about when I was up at the cabin and I could just holler all night if I wanted to.
Gardner: Yeah, I guess you couldn't do that in San Francisco or they'd think you were hurt, or you were hurting someone else.
Gardner: You mention Ralph Stanley. Ralph learned a lot of his gospel unaccompanied singing from a band from around his area called the Chestnut Grove Quartet who have a reissue out on County. So, when I think of unaccompanied music I think old unaccompanied traditional songs, and also old gospel singing. Are you interested in old mountain gospel music also?
Buckner: Oh yeah, I love gospel. I've been doing the Doc Watson gospel song "The Lone Journey" lately. I only do it with people I can do it well with though, someone who can do those harmonies with me. I'm not a religious boy, but I really love that kind of music.
Gardner: Well, there something to be said about people singing something with conviction.
Buckner: Yeah, that's all that it is. It's not religion it is just conviction. Subject matter.
Gardner: So, where do you get your lyrical inspiration from?
Buckner: Well, that's a tough one. I'm really into simplifying things and stripping it back. I like to find ways to present the music in those terms. For instance I just wrote a song a few months ago that is just two chords from start to finish which was going to be on this album but it will probably make it on the next one. Anything that will keep me out of my three or four chord progressions that I ease on into, I'll do it.
Gardner: So, how many albums are you going to be recording for MCA.
Buckner: I have one more. I'm looking forward to it. It feels natural. It seems like it will be a good natural stopping point. I dunno, maybe I'll do more for them after that but that is what the contract says.
Gardner: Now, you talk about stripping down songs and thing like that, but do you ever plan on doing a whole CD with the Doubters?
Buckner: No, that was just a revolving lineup of people that came and went throughout my music life. There never really was any one band that could be called the Doubters.
Gardner: When you were really young and listening to music were you listening to rock and roll and stuff like most other kids, or country?
Buckner: I was into Frampton Comes Live, KISS and stuff like that. Later I was into the Pretenders and Talking Heads and the New Wave/Punk scene. But my first bands always had a country thing going on which I can't really explain. I guess the way I sing and the chord progressions I use kind of lean towards that for some reason. I think it is just inescapable for me. I was talking about using different instruments and techniques earlier and that was to keep things as differently as possible because I think I lean towards one sort of chord progression and I don't want to. I don't want to lean towards any one thing.
Gardner: Well, thanks for spending some time with me this afternoon. It's really nice to meet you in person and get a chance to talk.
Buckner: Yeah, it was nice to meet you. Hope you enjoy the show tonight.
Richard Buckner's new album, Devotion + Doubt , is out on MCA
Records. Steve Gardner is a Oldtime, Bluegrass and Celtic music DJ at WXDU,
the non-commercial college station at Duke University in Durham, NC. His
show, Topsoil, airs every Sunday from 12-3pm. He can be reached on the
internet at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 1997 Steve Gardner