Photo by Paul Malachi.
Will Schube is already off-book.
There used to be a mechanic in Bushwick, Brooklyn named Gus. He ran his shop for 40 or so years. Buck Meek, who’s latest solo LP is out today, calls him Joe By the Book, or Joe for short. Meek encountered Gus when he and Adrianne Lenker purchased an ‘87 converted RV and drove around Brooklyn looking for someone to fix it. Tour was calling. This was back in 2012, before the band they’re in now, Big Thief, were getting big-font billing at festivals and traversing the world twice over. Back then, the van they bought wouldn’t work and they knew it when they handed over the cash. No mechanic would bite, until they found Gus. But Gus didn’t want to fix it. He thought it would run fine. He gave the duo a bag of seedy weed and the bus a good luck tap on the caboose and Lenker and Meek were off. The van held up. Before the next tour, they called Gus’ shop looking for another tuneup. Gus died in a motorcycle accident in the Catskills, they were told. The van broke down shortly after. On “Joe By the Book,” which leads off Meek’s new LP, Gus is still riding his bike.
Buck Meek is full of these characters, sketches of encounters blown-up to life-size proportions. In lesser hands, these exposés of average Joes would perhaps come across as pandering, performative, or exploitative of a long displaced working class, but Meek cares for these characters with tenderness and joy; they’re part invention, part discovery. Perhaps it’s his quirkily buoyant voice, almost a giggling interaction with itself, or maybe it’s the musical accompaniment on the record—equal parts ‘70s outlaw country and mid-2000s experimental pop. Either way, Buck Meek is an album of quiet declarations, little moments magnified by Meek’s caring attentiveness.
“Some of the characters are loosely based on close friends of mine. But most of them…Touring around the world constantly with Big Thief, I think one of the biggest influences in my writing is the people I would meet in passing on tour. Gas station attendants, all sorts of people,” he explains over the phone from Galveston, Texas. “These are meetings so brief that I’m inevitably projecting their story onto them as a fast catalyst for a story and a character. I’m really fascinated by these interactions and how these people would remind me of certain archetypes.”
This is how Gus becomes “Joe By the Book” on the album’s first track, described beautifully by Meek’s warbly voice: “I can’t get it to start again/ There’s a pigeon in the fan/ Can you lend me a hand,” he sings, recalling the matter-of-fact yet wry story-telling style of artists like Little Wings and The Microphones. On “Ruby” he asks, “Why’s my Coca Cola taste like gasoline/ I see you fighting back a grin,” as his delivery mirrors the smile he describes. Meek recalls these stories with a distinct joy in his voice, a wonder that all these things happened to him, or that in creating them he’s able to show us the world he’s seen—real or fictitious. Buck Meek seems to be one of those guys everyone knows—the kind of person that’s always getting into funny situations, meeting wacky people, and making friends long after you’ve written them off. In his songwriting, he sees a kindness and has a patience most of us don’t.
“I went to this hilarious hillbilly arts high school in Wimberley, Texas. In 11th grade this new guitar teacher showed up. He was named Django Porter by his father, who used to be a pedal steel player with Merle Haggard,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Django just blew my mind with his jazz repertoire. I became his protege and actually backed him up at shows all around Texas on rhythm guitar,” he adds. And while there may not be an ode to Django on Buck Meek, his influence spans the record’s delicate, precise, and freewheeling guitar playing. Meek’s preferred style emphasizes intricate pickings, bouncing around the expanse of his sprawling vocal range.
On album closer “Fool Me,” Meek leads off with a Leon Russell ragtime piano line before a sharp, staccato guitar and brushed drums quietly enter. It meanders in place, perhaps a bit too stoned off Gus’ weed, before the guitar shoots skyward and soars above the structure, leading into one last chorus. “If time/ If time, time again I’ll lose her in the end/ You take me right back where I began,” Meek concludes with a perfectly fitted country yodel tapering off the last word.
Most of the things that we encounter merely happen to us. We don’t interact with; we run into, and then move along. In Meek’s world, these chance meet-ups are the thing itself. The passing waves, the profound interactions, the heartbreaking goodbyes, they all linger long after wheels up and windows down of another highway spanned, another sold-out tour. On Buck Meek, these brief moments exist outside of time, outside of hello and goodbye. For these moments, these little things are the story.