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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Richard Buckner
Label: Overcoat Recordings/Convent Records
Length: One track (18 segments)
I first discovered Richard Buckner a few years back while sitting in on a live performance on KCRW-FM's "Morning Becomes Eclectic," and I immediately fell in love with his work. I found many others who liked him, while still others kept saying, "He's too depressing!" Well, at times his music can be depressing, but with his latest album, "The Hill," Buckner has found the perfect grist for his mill in a lost literary classic. The lyrics and inspiration for the album come from the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Master's.
Quick tutorial: Masters first wrote Spoon River Anthology in installments in 1914-15 for a magazine called "Reedy's Mirror." Using his youth in rural Illinois as a frame of reference for this collection of nearly 250 free verse "poems." The book begins with "The Hill," from which Buckner takes the title of the CD. The Hill, in fact, is a cemetery on a hill, and the book features a diverse sampling of the inhabitants of that cemetery speaking from beyond the grave about their lives and deaths. Those speaking come from all walks of life and died every imaginable death, from murder to suicide to old age. And the real beauty of the piece is that Masters fully captures the whole range of emotions from within the small community of Spoon River, and the pieces intertwine as the dead speak about each other, including husbands, wives, lovers, children, employers, employees, criminals, and lawyers, and many more. A nice interactive version of the full work is available online at: http://www.antelope-ebooks.com/Spoon/spcont.html, though I recommend getting the book out of your library or even purchasing a copy.
For his work, Buckner has chosen eighteen of the pieces and has put them to music, some with lyrics straight from Masters' work and others as instrumentals, and he has strung them all together in one long song of about 34 minutes. There are no tracks on the CD and the pieces go together seamlessly, so they have to be listened to as an entire piece. Buckner alternates between vocals and instrumentals, and the music, which is classic Buckner, works perfectly with the themes and stories found in the Anthology.
The CD begins with an instrumental titled "Mrs. Merritt," a woman who died in prison after serving 30-years for the death of her husband, who was actually killed by her 19-year old lover. This is followed by "Tom Merritt" who chases that lover from his wife's bed, only to be shot to death. "Elmer Karr," the lover, is then represented by an instrumental, though in the Masters book, he speaks of finding redemption both during and after his fourteen years behind bars.
These themes of love, sin, and redemption are found throughout the Anthology as well as Buckner's piece. Other segments include "Ollie McGee" and "Fletcher McGee," a husband and wife who despised each other in life, as well as in death. And the majority of the characters featured provide a roll call of despair:
There is something about DeathSo while there is still a measure of depression in Buckner's work, there is certainly a ray of hope.
Musically, the CD is also vintage Buckner, with acoustic guitar at the core. Some pieces are slower laments, while others move along quickly, and even loudly. Buckner provides the guitars and trademark gravelly vocals, while Joey Burns and John Convertino (of Calexico and Friends of Dean Martinez fame) round out the sound with cello, bass, and percussion. If you can stomach Buckner's vocal stylings, then by all means, get The Hill. But if you are not a fan of Buckner's, at least do yourself the favor of picking up a copy of Spoon River Anthology.
Ken Mueller 1/4/2001