The Hill is an eerie concept, but as a piece of sepia-tinted folk art, it works remarkably well.
Twenty years on, Richard Buckner’s career continues to take him into new, unexplored terrain. No mere singer/songwriter of the standard wispy variety, Buckner’s used the form to pursue a style that’s often so adventurous, it defies conventional dictates and puts him into a category all his own. It was that feeling of restless exploration that got him booted off his first label, MCA, simply because his fastidious methods made him a less immediately accessible artist as far as any wider public appeal. A critically acclaimed darling -- his albums included contributions from such prestigious participants as Marc Ribot, Dave Schramm, Syd Straw and members of Giant Sand -- he failed to find an audience and opted to move on.
Happily, Buckner remained undaunted, and his 2000 debut for the tiny Chicago-based indie label Overcoat found him tackling the music for Edgar Lee Master’s epic literary masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology in the form of a startling new album entitled The Hill. Staying true to the piece’s original concept and, in fact, the actual poetry that gave the anthology its narrative thread, Buckner turned each track into an epitaph for the fictional town’s departed citizens. Buckner composed music that was stripped down to the basics: simple, strummed, folk-like dirges seeped in reflection and emotion. He focuses on 18 of the original 250 characters, using their names as titles for the songs -- “Mrs. Merritt”, “Tom Meritt”, Elmer Karr”, Ollie McGee”, and so on -- as a continuing homage to those who had passed. It’s an eerie concept, but as a piece of sepia-tinted folk art, it works remarkably well. While all the songs, whether instrumental interludes or clipped acoustic ballads, are of the bare-boned variety, Buckner’s yearning delivery and the musical assists from Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino turn these tracks into moving and memorable expressions of significant consequence. So even while the album is best considered as a whole, each selection stands out as a singular yet intimate encounter.
Consequently, it’s a sign of renewed recognition that Buckner’s current label, Merge, has chosen to re-release this minor classic on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Spoon River Anthology. No bonus tracks or special packaging graces this reissue; in fact, the expected liner notes aren’t even included. That’s a shame, especially given the album’s genesis. It was inspired by Buckner’s stay at a scruffy, out of the way motel near the mouth of Death Valley, California, a week that found him bereft of a phone, TV or any other modern conveniences. With only his guitar and a copy of the anthology to help him pass the time, he worked up a few of the poems, recorded them on cassette and promptly forgot about what he had compiled. It wasn’t until an acquaintance discovered the demos in Buckner’s truck four years later, that the album actually came to life.
Once again, the characters that inhabit The Hill are given new life thanks to a single, solitary work that reflects Buckner’s daring and determination. An isolated chapter in a very creative career, The Hill is nothing less than a peak performance.