Part visionary, part grinder, Joe Buck is the whirlwind that twisted Dorothy. He’s the guy that messed around with Jim. The straw that shatters the drink. He’s a clear-eyed passionate prophet of doom and self-reliance nursed equally by punk rock and Hank Williams. Stand too close to the stage and this weird, wiry fella’s nitro funny-car presence will singe your eyebrows.
His no-nonsense, no-bullshit, no-surrender attitude’s couched in big-picture thoughts and enough street fighter moxie to deliver a deathblow combo to any hipster banjo players or nearby newgrass beardos. “I keep threatening to make another country record, and it’s like maybe it’s time,” says Buck, his sentences punctuated by rising in-your-face intonation. “The shit’s kinda gotten whatever, and at some point I’ll be, ‘It’s time to kick THESE LITTLE KIDS’ ASSES with a real-fucking-country-record AND PUT THIS THING TO REST.'”
It’s more than mere bluster. Buck is one of the most fascinating and influential characters to emerge from the 15-year (and running) Americana bloomlet, combining punk rock DIY swagger and earnest traditional country humility. He’ll be the first to tell you that no one has improved on Jimmy Rodgers, Robert Johnson, or the Carter Family, but that won’t stop him from trying.
“If you’re doing this right — it’s always out in front of you,” he says, driving away from his Murray, Ky., home on the first day of tour. “There is no finish line. It’s always a pursuit. There’s never a time you go ‘BOOM, OKAY,’ because you’re always trying to write better songs with better melodies. It’s your craft.”
Buck grew up on a farm in Missouri and has been playing instruments for as long as he can remember. He has a picture of himself as a two-year old behind his sister’s drum kit. He also learned piano, though it was just part of his father’s plan to turn out cultured kids that then became lawyers and doctors. Buck was on that track too, only to discover law didn’t suit his personality.
“It was like, so this isn’t about truth? I am supposed to use my powers to just out-lawyer somebody? So this is about us? What an arrogant fucking thing,” he says. “[My mom] instilled me with a conscience. So I can’t use my powers to defraud people. Like my music, I have to believe every word with all my heart or I couldn’t do it because I would be ripping them off.”
Though an early punk adherent, he could see by the late ’80s that the string was running out. “We couldn’t play any louder or harder or be more vile. GG [Allin] took care of it. So what do you do after that?” Buck asks. “He took it to the end of the road, and when that happens, you start over.”
And for Buck, starting over meant looking back. “That’s where the Hank Williams came in,” he says. “It’s not so far in the past. It’s right there with our grandparents, and if we don’t let this synapse break, it will continue to exist. With Hank III and the bands I was in that’s what we were doing. I just want to be a stone in the water that some kid could use to jump onto so he didn’t have to make this huge leap, an island they could land on and it’s just far enough out where you can get to the next spot.”
Buck spent the late ’90s through early 2000s helping guide Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, but after falling out with the band, Buck joined his buddy Hank Williams III’s tour, playing double-bass with wild, show-stealing abandon. Meanwhile, he was building up a reputation in a Nashville honky-tonk called Layla’s, which ultimately landed in his ex’s hands.
Buck wound up back on his own literally, figuratively, and romantically. He left Hank III and concentrated on his solo career, performing as a one-man-band with caged-animal ferocity. It wasn’t just the performance. The lyrics are equally aggressive on songs like “Planet Seethe,” “Hillbilly Speedball,” and “Evil Motherfucker from TN.” It was as much a reaction to the scene as the circumstances of his life.
“The reason I made the first Motherfucker album is I’d been at the epicenter of this rebirth of whatever. And it’s like it had already been co-opted. It had every little hippie with his little mandolin and his little banjo playing clawhammer. I’m like WHAT THE FUCK,” Buck says “None of them can play. If we played like that, we’d get fucking shit thrown at us. I’m like okay, great, you saw something that inspired you, but YOU TOOK IT NO FURTHER THAN THAT.”
The idea was to free himself from any expectations, because no matter how rebellious you are, you still want Nashville to love you. Buck didn’t care, and so turned to penning profanity-laced tirades.
“It was purposefully to never be played on the radio,” he continues. “It was liberating for me because I didn’t hold a FUCKING THING BACK. I may have truly become a writer then.”
Buck followed his eponymous ’07 full-length debut with 2010’s Piss & Vinegar (which reprised a couple tracks from the debut), and now with his December left-turn, Who Dat?, which finds Buck not only dialing back the vitriol but dropping some jazz.
“It’s just what came out. I love Louis Jordan. I don’t know if I’ve been listening to it way too much, but a lot of it came out like that,” he says. “I made the record I wanted. That’s all I can say. And people are really on it. Nobody is giving me shit about not saying motherfucker all the time. And truly, I don’t do stuff for commercial reasons — the way it came out is just what was happening — but people who wouldn’t put up with the other shit hear something off that and say what the fuck? And they come to a show and realize it isn’t just an idiot up there screaming at them.”
Notice the “just”? That’s perhaps the best thing about Buck. Not only is he unafraid to challenge and confront societal bullshit, but he’s equally self-vigilant and aware. Because you won’t find great artists who aren’t self-critical. “Humility is what drives people, not arrogance,” he says. “It’s like I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t suck. That’s why I work so hard.”
And that’s why Joe Buck’s the opposite of suck.