Richard Buckner's Tragic Troubadour

Richard Buckner's Tragic Troubadour
Richard Buckner's work has always been haunted by frustrated hopes and thwarted emotion. His latest album, The Hill, grew out of a literary haunting, Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, one of the most mordant works of American modernism.
Published in 1915, Spoon River Anthology created a sensation with its frank depictions of sexual betrayal and desire and its candid view of the meanness and stunted lives of small-town middle America. A collection of fictional epitaphs, it seems nearly oracular in its nearness to the anxieties of contemporary life.

"That's one reason why I like the poems so much: because they sound like they could happen today," says Buckner over the phone from Edmonton, where he intends to settle with his new bride. "Everything in terms of relationships and emotions was as scary back then as it is now."

Masters made such an apt companion to Buckner's own lyrics that when Buckner wrote the music around Masters' poems and arranged the songs with Calexico/Giant Sand rhythm section John Convertino and Joey Burns, he found the process little different from fleshing out his own lyrics with melodies and chord progressions.

"Songs kind of have colours, and so do stories, so you try to find the colours that match," Buckner explains. "It was very important that I represented the characters truthfully. Some of them turned out to be instrumentals because not all poems make great song lyrics. But there is a great, subtle metre to Masters — actually, it's more sectional, but in a metred kind of way."

Nowhere do the metrics of verse and song meet for greater dramatic effect than in "Tom Merritt." The rhythm of the story seems fractured by the song's chord structure, until you realise it's a set-up for the chillingly deadpan and deadly reversal that climaxes the song.

And The Hill's songs have resonated strongly with Buckner's audience — Buckner himself has been taken aback by the strong literary reactions of his fans. "I toured the States before the album came out, and the only thing people talked about was Masters, which was totally weird," says Buckner in the surf-dude drawl that contrasts so starkly with his tormented troubadour persona. "Somebody came up to me and took me to task because Masters was just a minor poet. You don't expect that at a show."