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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Devotion & Doubt

Richard Buckner

For people who aren’t in the performance business, it often comes as a surprise when they find out that their favorite stage performers are indeed putting on an act.  On the one hand, it seems like it should be obvious.  We know it’s a show; we know that it’s entertainment, not ‘real life’.  And yet, because the public face is the only one that we usually see, we’re nonetheless surprised when we see an artist off-stage and find out just how much of an act the show is.  We can’t wrap our heads around the fact that Alice Cooper is a born-again Christian and an avid golfer, that Pee-Wee Herman had his extensive pornography collection seized by the police, or that television evangelist Ted Haggard spends his spare time cooking crystal meth with gay hookers.  Because we forget that all of them are character actors, and that the spectacle is not the person.  It’s no less true in music, politics, or theater.  The performer is the product, and the persona is the marketing.

I know this — I do this for money — yet even I get tricked from time to time.  The Pony Princess and I went to see Richard Buckner at The Southern in Charlottesville.  I had been listening to Devotion & Doubt for a few months, and I had a pretty good idea what to expect.  Melodic, softly arpeggieated guitar, whispered, brooding vocals, and a seated audience in a mostly hushed room.  Because it’s that kind of music.  It’s usually what singer-songwriters do, and why I usually don’t much like seeing singer-songwriters play live.  Buckner’s music is beautiful, powerful stuff, but it almost universally has the same tone.  You come expecting to see a man digging into the depths of his own personal heartbreaks, and that’s exactly what you get.  That’s his act, and he’s a master of it.

So, we stuck around after the show to say hello and thanks.  TPP has been a fan for years; I only more recently found out about Buckner, but I know that as a performer, I like it when people acknowledge that I’ve just done something.  So we hung out while Buckner made his way into the now-lit room to mingle with the scattering crowd.  The brooding was gone.  The man groaning under the weight of his own demons was gone.  Utterly evaporated.  The guy shaking hands and laughing with the audience members was friendly, chatty, carefree.  He told us about his quirky collection of guitars, about how he used to tour with a steel player but found it too much trouble, and generally just shot the shit with anybody who was interested.  Like Alice Cooper hitting the links after a heavy metal festival, Buckner clearly didn’t take his stuff anywhere near as seriously as his Product might suggest.  He had a character that people found they could relate to, so he plays that character in his performances.

That’s not a bad thing.  It’s a good thing.  If I were performing songs that I had written fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t want to still be the same person that I was then.  But I might still want to dig into that character, to perform as the character who penned that song and made people care about it.  In most of my own musical pursuits, I’m playing songs that were written decades before I was born, and I play those characters.  I wear a hat and boots despite never having ridden horses, or I lead shanties despite having never sailed at sea.  I act the playboy despite actually being pretty shy; I act the lout despite being an introvert.  It’s show business, folks, and there ain’t a thing wrong with it.

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