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On the 100th anniversary of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Merge is reissuing the epic it inspired: Richard Buckner’s The Hill.
The Hill started in 1996 in an old garage that had been converted to The Ranch Olancha Motel, a dusty place near the mouth of Death Valley, between Lone Pine and Dunmovin, California. Buckner, who was en route to Tucson, Arizona, to record what would become Devotion & Doubt, stayed a week in a room with no phone, no television, carrying his guitar, a four-track recorder, and a copy of Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. He tinkered with a few of the book’s poems, put them on a cassette, and forgot about it until an acquaintance discovered it in his truck four years later. Beset with writer’s block and looking for a distraction, Buckner would find in the tape the spur he needed.
Recorded in Edmonton, Alberta, and Tucson, The Hill converts Spoon River poems to music. You’d wonder why a poet in his own right would feel the need to sample another’s work. But Masters’ book of poetry tells much the same story Buckner is accustomed to, the kind of story that makes him distinct among Americana storytellers.
Americana as a genre often offers a sense that its creators have lived through their body of work. No matter the story form, you often believe (or are plainly told) that what you’re hearing or reading or seeing has been informed by their life experiences. They have a personal history to tell, where even if the story is fiction, the emotion was theirs to feel.
Buckner is more objective. He’s a visitor, a watcher. A traveler who disappears into the world and returns to us with its story, not his. (Physically, he’s done this: While living in northern California, Buckner left for Lubbock, Texas, to record his debut, transporting himself from his environs to absorb the terrain that would infuse Bloomed.) Even his first-person narrative feels like he’s entered another’s skin, surveilling through their eyes to draw his own interpretation. His oft gloomy, somber poetry could be confused with his reality, as someone who has lived, sometimes hard, and sees little hope. Not necessarily so.
He is unencumbered by the fallacy of nostalgia or the attachment of subjectivity. Both contort the truth. Buckner’s bleak objectivity, weighted heavily by his quivering, throaty testimony, can feel more honest. Difficult situations aren’t assigned false hope. Brief episodes of optimism aren’t invincible. Sometimes it’s bad, and don’t bet on it getting better, even if it might. Sometimes it’s good, but don’t bet on it staying that way, even if it might. That may seem a horrible pessimism, but the peaks and valleys of life are such, even if we spend our waking existence trying to live just the opposite.
And that’s why Spoon River Anthology is such a perfect fit for Buckner. Each page reads as a final, postmortem dictum of a different deceased resident—more than 250 of them now passed—in the fictional Midwestern town of Spoon River. The epitaphs are important for Buckner because, in death, these people strip the breathing city of its dishonesty. Each one, from Reuben Pantier to Elizabeth Childers to Oscar Hummel, is no longer concerned with whispers and pointed fingers that are often the consequence of a life laid bare for all to see. They’re unleashing themselves, without fallacy or attachment.
Buckner chooses 18 of these confessions, each given a unique rendering. Backed by Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino and surveyed with Buckner’s unflagging vocal desperation, Spoon River’s residents come back to life. Like so much of his career, Buckner disappeared into Spoon River and returns to us with its story.