Richard Buckner’s vocal barbiturate has long reminded me of the sleepy baritone of Don Williams. But there’s more to it than voice alone. For starters, as the “gentle giant of Nashville,” Williams stands nearly 6 feet, 3 inches tall. Buckner stands in only an inch or two shorter. Moreover, Williams’ AM arrangements were always pushing the orchestrational envelope of whatever Music Row was peddling at the time. Similarly, Buckner’s plaintive guitar, often treated with stomp boxes and other electronic FX, never has made him a run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter. And yet, regardless of their physical height, neither man enjoys the stature they deserve. If he plays at all anymore, Don Williams is resigned to state fair stages, or worse yet, Myrtle Beach’s Branson-by-the-shore supper theatres. (Truth be told, that’s where I first saw him.) Likewise, Richard Buckner can only get gigs in the most cramped coffeehouses or the dingiest of bars. True, it’s probably too late to do anything for Williams. But there’s time enough to save Richard Buckner.
It’s been five years since Buckner’s Meadow, but endemic to Richard, this wait wasn’t really his fault. Canceled sessions, a burgled computer, faulty equipment and some brouhaha with his lawyer kept Our Blood off the shelves. A good and faithful servant (really, I first heard him playing a birthday party at an über-fans’ comic shoppe), perhaps the delay will engender a deeper appreciation for the man’s work. Album opener “Traitor” certainly should, at least. Featuring Buckner’s Big Dog acoustic daisy-chained through Sweetwater’s latest, it’s an auspicious lead-off for a record that gets ever-promising on through to the cleanup track. “The moment has only left them waiting,” he intones on “Thief.” Truer words, indeed. The delicately despondent instrumental “Ponder” might sound a bit fatalist, but then again, Buckner’s career thus far has pretty much been woe personified, so perhaps he’s only projecting.
Regardless, there’s nothing sorry about the help here. Shooting for the moon on Our Blood, Buckner landed the star talent of Blood On The Tracks slide guitarist Buddy Cage for three whole songs. There’s a guest spot, too, from Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley (he’s credited with maracas on “Collusion”). And the quality of the production here is probably the best I’ve heard on a Richard Buckner record. Ensemble and balance, clarity and precision, I’m not sure who gets the game ball, but Our Blood practically glistens in the speakers compared to that tinny and uneven record he did with Mekon Jon Langford.
These nine songs are so restless, so forlorn — in short, so Buckner-esque — that they’ll never move as many units as some other Merge bands with Canuck connections. Circumstances conspire, and history’s certainly been a queen bitch, and yet throughout it all, Richard Buckner has persevered. Yes, it sucks being the perpetual underdog on an underground circuit. Just ask Don Williams next time he plays The Carolina Opry at 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in November. He might be tall, forward-thinking and under-appreciated, but in the end, Richard Buckner is not Don Williams. Ultimately, Williams never made a record as intense and as beautiful as Our Blood.