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January 2001 Pick of the Month

The Hill
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:, 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:

  • Julia Miller - a 30-year old pregnant woman who took her own life with morphine
  • Willard Fluke - an adulterer who died as he stood in church to confess his sins
  • Elizabeth Childers - who envies the baby she lost in childbirth, saying, "death is better than life."
  • A.D. Blood - a fire-breathing moralist whose grave is a bed of lovemaking for a young couple
  • Oscar Hummel - who was beaten to death by Blood after stumbling drunk into his yard
  • Nellie Clark - whose husband leaves her after discovering she was sexually abused as a child.
  • Johnnie Sayre - who dies while skipping school to ride the rails
  • Dora Williams - who's pathetic husbands keep dying and leaving her money
  • Reuben Pantier - the prodigal son incarnate, who spurned Dora Williams
  • Emily Sparks - an old maid teacher who spent her life trying to save Reuben Pantier
  • Amanda Barker - lost her life in childbirth, but claims her husband meant to kill her
Many of these subjects show remorse and regret for how they lived their lives, while others weigh in with words of bitterness and anger. It is interesting to note which of the pieces Buckner chose for this album, and which ones he chose to represent as instrumentals.  I'd love to sit down with him sometime and find out why he chose certain pieces and decided to record them the way he did.  But the most interesting thing is his choice for the final piece called "William & Emily."  After a long list of people with problems, gripes, and the marks of sin on their lives, this husband and wife are a breath of fresh air.  There is no cheating, lying, stealing, hate, or murder here.  Just a tale of eternal love: a couple that was fully devoted in both life and death: 
  There is something about Death
  Like Love itself!
  If with someone with whom you have known passion,
  And the glow of youthful love,
  You also, after years of life
  Together, feel the sinking of the fire,
  And thus fade away together,
  Gradually, faintly, delicately,
  As it were in each other's arms,
  Passing from the familiar room ?
  That is a power of unison between souls
  Like love itself!
So 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




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