The cost of moving on
Ryan Adams and Richard Buckner struggle to pay up
Ryan Adams and Richard Buckner are songwriters with quite a bit in common aside from their respective headlining gigs in Atlanta this week. Both operate in that hazy, ill-defined genre called alt-country, while doing everything they can to shuck off that tag. Both cover familiar country music territory — loving, leaving, drinking and coming back — but do so in ways that usually avoid easy cliches.
Yet despite their similarities, Adams and Buckner are at very different points in their lives. Adams, 26, is the former frontman of the famously volatile, now-defunct alt-country outfit Whiskeytown. The media once dubbed Whiskeytown "the Nirvana of alt-country," an unwieldy title the band never lived up to — and one its leader had the good sense to be embarrassed by. Adams' second solo release, Gold, due out this week, should open a lot of eyes to a songwriter of surprising range and talent. Steeped in the sounds of Bob Dylan, the Stones, the Band, the Who and Aretha Franklin, it's an album that, on arrival, sounds like instant classic rock.
Buckner's four albums have made him a darling of music critics, even if his darkly poetic laments were never likely to transform alt-country into the new grunge. The 37-year-old's most recent album, The Hill, was a serious departure for the bear-voiced singer/songwriter. Buckner composed its haunting music to the words of Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 poetry collection, the Spoon River Anthology.
Both The Hill and Adams' Gold are telling indicators of where these two gifted writers are right now, what they've learned and where they're headed. For this story, an analysis of the music will have to suffice, as the recent tragic events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania made a timely interview with either impossible.
Born in the small town of Jacksonville, N.C., Adams headed for Raleigh after dropping out of school at age 16. Since leaving the South at 21, he's lived in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles, his current home of the moment. Adams has always written about his comings and goings in one way or another. But for Gold, he makes his most overt attempt at an actual travelogue. Bookended by "New York, New York" and "Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard," the album loosely follows Adams' journey from Manhattan to L.A.
On Gold's opening track, Adams sings with a fleeting nostalgia for his "apartment out on Avenue A" and for "the church on the Upper West Side," before wishing "farewell to the city and the love of my life." For Adams, leaving New York is about leaving a city and a girl. But even when he gets to California, a place he's picked largely because of another girl, it's pretty clear he won't be there for long. "I'm too scared to know, how I feel about you now/ La Cienega just smiled and waved goodbye," he sings on "La Cienega Just Smiled," predicting his imminent departure.
The album's final track centers around the name of another L.A. thoroughfare: "Goodbye Hollywood Boulevard/ I'll see you sometime," he sings before adding, "yeah, right." Like many folks struggling in their own skin through their twenties, Adams is a lot more comfortable with leaving than he is with loving.
Buckner's The Hill tells the twisted tales of the residents of the fictional town of Spoon River in their own voices, from beyond the grave. In terms of Buckner's life and career, it's as significant for what it isn't as for what it is. Buckner spent his first three albums painting grizzled portraits of wandering and pining that echoed a decade spent living in places like Atlanta, Arizona, Washington State, Vancouver and San Francisco, never staying put for more than a year or two at a time.
"Damn this stretch of 99 that takes so many lives," Buckner sings of California's Highway 99 on "Lil' Wallet Picture," a wistful track from 1996's Devotion + Doubt, adding poignantly, "one of 'em was mine." In phrases like, "Now all I want is just a little nothing more" (from "4am"), it's clear Buckner wishes he could be the guy who stays, not runs. But he hasn't yet figured out how.
On his next outing, 1998's more rock-tinged Since, Buckner begins to figure it out. "Someone drove off slowly, another left a day before," he sings on "Faithful," meditating on splits and concluding that "time was saved, but not a thing was changed." On "Raze," he poses the question, presumably to himself, "What're you gonna do in another year or two but groove a new rut in another town?" On the album's closing track, "Once," Buckner prods himself to "slow down and hold on," before admitting, "Once I was dug up, I was sinking, now I'm longing to be saved."
The song, unlike almost everything in Buckner's catalog leading up to it, seems remarkably content. A slide guitar weaves itself through gentle piano as Buckner ends the album on a note of resolution, opting to forgo the way he finished his two previous releases — with a big question mark.
Buckner's been married twice, most recently in 1999, a year after Since was recorded, which seems to indicate he's found some resolution in his life. So it seems particularly significant that for 2000's The Hill, Buckner would turn to someone else for the lyrics. When you consider that his own words have been so focused on picking up and leaving whenever the thorns of love pricked a little too deeply, it's possible that, once intent on sticking around, he couldn't find a way to express his willingness to stay.
There have been a lot of really awful things written about people in their twenties, but one of the good things comes in Joan Didion's 1967 essay "Goodbye to All That." In it, she writes, "I knew that it would cost something sooner or later but when you are 22 or 23 you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance and be able to pay whatever it costs ... I could make promises to myself and to other people and there would be all the time in the world to keep them. I could stay up all night and make mistakes and none of it would count."
These are the same mistakes Buckner and Adams sing about, over and over. But Buckner has realized that it does count — all the leaving and coming back and leaving again. One day Adams will too.
Richard Buckner performs Thurs., Sept. 27, at The Earl, 488 Flat Shoals Road. Show time is 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $8. Anders Parker of Varnaline opens. 404-522-3950. www.badearl.com. Ryan Adams and LAX perform Fri., Sept. 28, at Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. Show time is 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. Paul Burch opens. 404-521-1786. www.variety-playhouse.com.??