Fifteen years ago, singer/songwriter Richard Buckner was close to rock-bottom. He was between record deals, coming off a couple of unhappy years getting nowhere on a big record label and feeling particularly bad about it when he played Seattle's Bumbershoot festival.
"This is a new song," he reportedly announced at one point, "and it might turn up on a record someday if I ever run across an honest person in the music industry, which should be in about 55 years."
Fortunately, Buckner didn't have to wait that long. Not too many years later, he landed at Triangle label Merge Records, and it's been a happy union. And while Buckner has never had anything like a commercial hit, Merge continues to be a supportive patron, releasing five of his albums since 2002. Buckner will play Wednesday's "Music in the Gardens" show at Duke University as part of this summer's 25-year anniversary celebration for the label.
"Merge is honest, with a good reputation, and they care," Buckner says by phone from his home in Upstate New York. "I feel so lucky because so many of my friends are so talented but don't have a relationship like I do with Merge, which is rare. There are so many fair-weather patrons in the music industry who think they have good ideas. But they're either aggressively negligent or pathetic people with hollow ideas. Before Merge, it seemed like every single person I worked with in the business decided not to pay or did something crazy."
Hard to categorize
Despite his cult status, Buckner remains one of the most distinctive artistic voices in semi-popular music. While his early records fit comfortably within the alternative-country universe, Buckner has since moved into more idiosyncratic sonic territory with hard-to-categorize late-night arrangements full of drones and pings.
Buckner is given to run-on lyrics and even track lists - his 2000 album "The Hill," a set of character sketches based on Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology," placed all 18 songs in a single 35-minute track. And while Buckner's musical approach has evolved a good bit over the years, what hasn't changed is the remarkable emotiveness of his plainspoken voice, which is amazingly evocative despite its seemingly limited range.
"Growing up, I liked instrumental music, reading and poetry, but not together," Buckner says. "I sang all the time as a kid, mock-singing along with Supertramp or (Peter) Frampton. Even before I understood anything about music or writing, there were certain phrases that really got to me. Then the first time I heard Pat Metheny, I was moved at how emotional a melody with no words could be. I learned to make my voice follow the words and become part of the words and emotions of performance.
"Live, every night is so different," he adds. "Some nights go fine, but other nights are just overwhelming. Not by the songs so much as being allowed by the audience to go into a zone that lets out a wildness or undiscovered part of the songs, or lets me get inside them in a different way. It's like hollering or crying, and makes some songs more meaningful. Recording can be the same way. I can do a song 20 times, but then it comes out in such a way that I have to keep it even with the flaws. That's the strange thing about music. You can't write it perfect, you just hope it will come across. A song to a feeling is like a pocket protector to a pen. The important thing is, does the pen work?"
Following 2011's spare and jagged "Our Blood" (a difficult album to make, in part because Buckner had to record much of it multiple times after his studio was robbed), Buckner's latest album is last September's "Surrounded." The current album has more of a comfortable sound and feel, thanks to the engineering tweaks of producer Tucker Martine (Decemberists, Neko Case, Tift Merritt). And Buckner himself continues tinkering with sounds and instuments.
"Where ('Our Blood') was very hard, both the writing and recording, this one was suspiciously smooth," Buckner says. "It made me not trust the world: 'Something is about to come back at me.' I do like to change up things a lot, based on shows I'm doing and places I'm playing. I'll change instruments, get to different string gauges and neck widths. That makes you play different, and the expression of the song will come out differently. It's all about the live shows, and whether or not the change of instruments changes the meaning for me."