Richard Buckner’s music found me when I was 13. I was away from home at summer camp and I bought a magazine called CMJ New Music Monthly because it came with a compilation CD that included “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies, which I wanted to listen to all summer, on repeat.
Eventually I got around to listening to the other songs on the album. I fell in love with track 12, Richard Buckner’s beautiful “Goner w/ Souvenir,” pretty much immediately. After camp, I ordered his album, Since, from my hometown’s now-defunct little record store and Richard Buckner’s music began to shape my emotional life. It was 1998.
In a way, Buckner taught me to write. His lyrics go deep into the heart of things, and over the years, his words have affected my writing and my thoughts as much as any novelist. I got to see him play in a stranger’s living room in Indianapolis in April, and it was magical.
In 2006, I turned 21 and was finally old enough to see Richard Buckner play in a bar. I’ve seen him play several times since then. I have recordings of his concerts from 1996, when he was still laughing and talking at shows. But sometime between then and when I started coming to see him, he stopped interacting with the audience. He just walked out onto the stage, closed his eyes, and started to play. (Spoiler alert: He’s interacting now, and it is wonderful.)
It was all very enigmatic until about a year ago, when he started blogging and sending newsletters, sharing these wry little wordpieces on Facebook and Twitter. You got to see this other side of Richard. You got the sense that maybe he didn’t like people all that much—that maybe he preferred to hang out at home, sort of protected from the outside realm.
Earlier this year, he announced that he would be touring the United States, playing in people’s living rooms. You buy a ticket, get an address, show up there, and Richard Buckner plays. Simple and beautiful.
By the time the day of the show rolled around, I had been looking forward to it for months, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. I drove to Indy not knowing how it would go, and knocked on a stranger’s door.
But immediately upon walking into the living room, I got the sense that everyone had OPTED IN. We all really wanted to be there. It seemed like a secret meeting of the underground Indianapolis chapter of the Richard Buckner appreciation society. Everyone there seemed really nice and kind of shy—exactly the way you would expect people who listened to Buckner to be.
As we waited for Richard to arrive, people struck up conversations. Someone asked what everyone’s favorite Buckner song was and the question took me aback because it seemed so personal. I thought: the first rule of listening to Richard Buckner is that you don’t talk about listening to Richard Buckner.
I guess the best way to explain it is this: Buckner’s music has been such a part of my life for so long that I have a lot of different attachments to his songs, and it all seems really private and murky. Like telling someone my favorite Richard Buckner song would be sharing something really intense and personal. I remember a girl in high school whom I never knew very well telling me that her favorite Counting Crows song was “Anna Begins.” I went home and listened to that song and it was so beautiful and intimate. Suddenly I felt like I knew all these things about this girl who had always seemed kind of cold. It was like peering into a world I didn’t have access to.
But here was this group of people who had gathered together and our only known common interest was our love for Richard Buckner. Luckily, other people didn’t feel that Buckner songs were too personal to talk about, so a conversation got started around that.
When Richard arrived, he was laughing and talking. Sunlight was coming through the window and I thought it might be a different kind of Richard Buckner concert. Like maybe it would be a really happy one.
And then he started playing. He shared songs from across his career, including the recently reissued Bloomed and 2013’s Surrounded. And before I knew it, it was like Richard had snuck into my soul with his words. He had opened up my heart and was presenting it back to me on a platter.
For a while, I thought it was just me. That I was the only weirdo who was so deeply affected. And then I saw another woman blinking back tears. Holy crap. This was happening to other people, too.
The point at which it was most noticeable was when Richard started playing “Lil Wallet Picture,” an old favorite from Devotion & Doubt, and half the crowd let out a collective groan. Like we were all saying, No, Richard. Don’t hit us with that one. Can you just not?
We had each felt these things from his music before, listening in private, but there was something intensely amplified by having Richard here, playing for us in this perfect room, among all of these other Richard Buckner believers.
Here were all these insiders, these people who are affirming his art, people to whom his work means so much. Playing in living rooms is where Buckner belongs.
At the end of the night, the guy whose living room we were sitting in asked if Buckner would play a song from 1998 called “Once”—the song that the owner of the living room and his wife had first danced to, back when they were just dating.
Richard hesitated. “I don’t know if I know it,” he said. “I gotta go back into my mind. It’s dark back there. There are wounds.” He laughed a little.
The whole experience was beautiful, but it was intense, like weird emotional surgery. The next day at work, my colleague said, “You seem like you’re in a funk. That’s not quite right—but it’s like you’re not really able to connect with reality right now.” So maybe the living room shows need come with a disclaimer: We are going to step into the past and dredge up some things, but in the end, you will be okay.