Soundbites: Buck Meek Embraces the Love Song

by 24USATVMay 15, 2024, 10:01 p.m. 19
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There was a long, long pause over the phone as the conversation ground to a sudden halt. Ordinarily, such a stretch of silence would unnerve me or make me wonder if I'd asked an offending question. Fortunately, I'd read about the way Buck Meek is in interviews; the guitarist and songwriter is not one to speak off the cuff or rush his response.

So I let him cook, holding my tongue while the native Texan, who is best known as the lead guitarist for indie-rock powerhouse Big Thief, ruminated on perhaps the biggest staple of pop music: the love song.

"I..." he started, the word trailing off into a sigh. "Well, I just really love the relationship between truth and abstraction. There's such a thin line between history and myth."

I waited to speak, something that takes rigid control from an extroverted motormouth like myself. But I knew Meek was just warming up to his point.

"I've come to trust honest, simple language in a song, combined with abstraction," he continued. "Writing this album and performing it live has been an effort on my part to surrender to the simplicity, open up and write more confessionally."

The album Meek was referencing is his third full-length solo LP, Haunted Mountain, released last summer. Fans of Big Thief know him as the mercurial lead guitarist creating soundscapes behind singer Adrianne Lenker, who's also his ex-wife. Haunted Mountain recasts him as a troubadour, tapping into his upbringing playing jazz manouche and western swing rhythm guitar in Kerrville, Texas.

Having toured the record out west and in Europe, Meek comes to South Burlington for a performance at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge on Saturday, May 18, with singer-songwriter Jolie Holland opening.

"You learn a lot about your songs, playing them for a room full of people," Meek said, pointing out the reciprocal relationship between performer and audience. "With Big Thief, being an instrumentalist supporting a songwriter has taught me so much. But when you're the one singing at the front of the stage, confessing your own story and guiding the audience through a narrative, that's a very different responsibility."

And Meek's narratives on Haunted Mountain come with a message that it's time to sing about love again. The record is rich in contemplations of love, be it romantic, platonic, familial, or attached to traditions or the shadow of something that has disappeared.

"It feels like we're in the phase right now where there's this sort of taboo around love songs," Meek said. "But it feels so good to listen [to] — and to sing — those great old love songs, back when people were unabashedly singing them."

Meek named Sam Cooke and John Prine as two of his favorite writers of love songs. While he appreciates the simplicity of Cooke's music, he noted the nuance of Prine's love songs, using "Far From Me" as an example.

"You've got this song where a guy is talking to a waitress, and you don't know if they're in love or just talking or what," Meek recounted. "Each verse, the story changes a little and you learn more, making the chorus mean something different every time it comes around. By the end, I'm left with this feeling that love is so much bigger than the binary concepts of marriage."

Meek suffuses the songs on Haunted Mountain with love: for his wife, Dutch singer-songwriter Germaine Dunes, in the tender ballad "Secret Side"; for his family on the nostalgic track "Cyclades."

"We channel our love into human emotions, but it's all in the same well," Meek said after another drawn-out pause as he contemplated what a love song represents to him. "One of my favorite things about songwriting is dipping into that well and capturing important moments of truth. It creates a sort of journal I can go back to later, and it enables me to empathize with my past self."

That past self wrote songs through characters and other techniques that created a little separation between himself and his art. While Meek finds no fault with those methods or his previous work, lately he prefers the naked vulnerability of writing from his own standpoint.

"It's always worthwhile to push into new directions," Meek asserted. "But I've found that, over time, the songs that were easiest for me to write were the ones where I just sort of stepped out of my own way."

Solo work also gives Meek a chance to approach the guitar differently. Longtime friend and collaborator Adam Brisbin handles most of the lead guitar on his solo albums. Meek said he loves getting to be the rhythm guitarist, as he did when he jammed with older musicians as a kid in Texas.

"These old-timers would have me chugging away on all these close-voiced chords, holding it down four on the floor and keeping the time," he recalled with unmistakable fondness. "With Big Thief, Adrianne is such an incredible guitar player who works with all these open tunings and is an amazing lead player, as well ... Often it feels like those songs need more ambient soundscape stuff or to interlock with what she's playing."

It's a fascinating side of Meek, who is proving that he can belt out a heartfelt love song just as skillfully as he can craft a gorgeous guitar solo.

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