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Mystery to Me

Knowing me, not knowing you: the enigmatic Richard Buckner.

Even within physical reach, Richard Buckner defies description.

The alt-folker has often been labeled "a troubadour." But what else are you going to call a singer-songwriter so road-refined that he's logged over 445,000 miles on his beloved green 1996 Toyota truck?

Then there's Buckner's voice, repeatedly described as both "rich" and "deep" by no less a figure than Alejandro Escovedo. (And who's going to argue with Alejandro Escovedo? Especially when he's right.)

But beyond those three signifiers, definitions get a little dicey.

On disc, Buckner is an impressionist without a paintbrush. A word to latch onto here, one there. Mere hints at subject matter surrounded by music infectious and evocative enough to force-feed an ineluctable mood.

In person — say, over beers at Lakeside Lounge, a small music bar co-owned by Steve Earle guitarist Eric "Roscoe" Ambel that's just around the corner from Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan — talking with Richard Buckner is a lot like taking notes in philosophy class. Well, except for the beer part: You just listen, hang on as best you can and hope to God there's not a pop quiz.

Buckner's songwriting, like his taste in literature (he's "devoured" the low-diction writings of Raymond Carver, e.e. cummings, Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller, and set selections from Edgar Lee Masters' decidedly non-rhythmic Spoon River Anthology to 30-plus nonstop minutes of music on The Hill), brandishes disdain for flowery language. In fact, it seems entirely possible to create a set of Richard Buckner lyrics by affixing one of those magnetic poetry kits to the fridge and letting your three-year-old nephew rearrange the words on his way to the chocolate milk. That is, if you purchased the brooding and inscrutable assortment, the one that contains words like "shards," "glare," "lost," "bitter" and "warning."

So maybe a different approach is in order — maybe Buckner by the numbers.

There's the 445,000 miles, of course. There have been two marriages, both somewhere in the rearview mirror. And then there are eight full-length solo recordings spread out over four different record labels.

On Meadow, Buckner's latest release, there are exactly ten songs — all of which are written in the normally confessional (though in this case remote) first-person. But nine of Meadow's ten tracks yield open-ended one word titles ("Town," "Canyon," "Lucky," "Mile," "Before," "Window," "Kingdom," "Numbered" and "Spell"), and two of those songs don't even include their title within their lyrics.

But I'm not the only one who's discombobulated enough to scratch a bald spot. At least two notable conglomerates, Volkswagen and MCA Records, also seem to have misinterpreted. Following Buckner's 1994 debut, Bloomed, MCA offered a record contract — even though Buckner himself suggested that they might be on a fool's errand. And the German car company paid to use Buckner's "Ariel Ramirez" as background music for one of their television ads. As commercials go, this one was particularly well done, but even Buckner is bewildered at the company's song selection: "Ariel Ramirez" contains the lines, "When we're killed or cured/And barely heard" (which doesn't exactly scream out, "Buy me!").

Buckner's is the "rich," "deep" and slightly malevolent voice, if only because that voice seems to know more than it's letting on.

Take the opening lines of "Town," Meadow's opening track: "Pretty destroyed. Coming through! Seize your spin around the room."

Say what?

"It was almost named 512," Buckner laughs. "That's the Austin area code. After I wrote it, I think a lot of the characters maybe came out of that — with very few specifics, but definitely a few situations came out of that. But, you know, who wants to be asked by every friend in Austin, 'Why 512?' No, it's not about anybody. It's about my time in Austin."

Austin is but one of countless towns in which Buckner has lived, if only for a brief period. After learning nomadic habits from his parents, who faux-settled in a number of northern-California communities, Buckner has put down temporary roots for himself in a multitude of municipalities — San Francisco, Edmonton, Atlanta, Tucson and now Brooklyn.

But very little about Buckner's music — a seemingly perfect soundtrack for late-night drives through barren terrain with a certain foreboding just beyond the reach of the headlights — suggests a northeastern urban environment. And yet Buckner's lived in New York City for a couple of years now, well past his average stay — although, as is his wont, his stay there seems temporary.

"Oh, I'm not here for long, I think," Buckner says, "unless my girlfriend gets some really cool thing. And if one of her things works out and it's good to stay here, we'll stay here. I love my landlord, and the neighborhood I live in has taught me so much about myself and the world. If I had a fuckload of money, I'd probably stay here and keep doing it, but honestly, you know, about once every month or so I break down because of this town. Not the way people treat each other per se, but the way people are forced to treat each other. What you have to go through before you have that experience — and that makes you react. I think I understand a lot more about people right now than I did even a couple of years ago."

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