"Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley / The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter? / All, all, are sleeping on the hill."
Edgar Lee Masters opens his 1915 Spoon River Anthology, a volume of monologues spoken from beyond the grave, with these "grave" words. Add haunting melodies thickened by the droning sounds of a cello and organ, sweeten with the gruffly, sensuous vocals of Richard Buckner, stir in the production stylings of veteran J.D. Foster, and the result is pure top-notch Americana. Which is exactly what you'll hear on Buckner's latest solo effort, The Hill, recently released on Overcoat.
The San Francisco-based singer composed music that resurrects the free-verse epitaphs of the inhabitants of Masters's fictional Spoon River cemetery. Buckner sings with such sincerity and eeriness it's as though he were channeling their voices. (Think folk musicologist Harry Smith discovers a musical Edward Gorey.) All the material on The Hill is based on these different portraits, which are woven together with instrumentals so that, like Masters's book, they are all connected. Buckner sustains the theme by presenting The Hill as one continuous piece. (There are no track points on the CD that allow the listener to skip between the 18 parts.)
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Releasing an album that essentially amounts to one long song is generally considered commercial suicide, but Buckner's exploration of other folks' psyches may be the best move, artistically, of his career. His earlier, more personal recordings -- Bloomed, originally released in 1994 and produced by Lloyd Maines, and two albums on MCA, both with similar Texas credentials -- are pretty and sentimental, but they don't possess the depth or relentless realism of The Hill. Buckner's gravelly voice becomes softly feminine, for example, when he sings Julia Miller's lament: "I was nervous and heavy with child whose birth I dreaded." To hear Buckner deliver the words of Spoon River's dearly departed could be only more chilling in concert.