Where does the Mad Buffalo roam? Wherever Randy Riviere happens to be. Most of the time, that would be somewhere in Montana, where the unique singer/songwriter crafts the songs he records and performs under that soubriquet. And just as its suggestion of animal strength, dignity, loneliness and loss stirs feelings embedded in the American psyche, so does the music Riviere creates.
If you’ve heard the work of Riviere/Mad Buffalo on his three previous albums A Good Bad Road, Fool Stand and Wilderness, then you understand this connection. A wildlife biologist who has worked independently and in official positions to preserve the integrity of threatened environments, Riviere (pronounced “Ri-VEER”) is also a student of American history – not just through the names of presidents and battlefields but also in the sense of its spirit and soul. You don’t have to live in the heartland to feel this in his work. From city centers to suburban sprawls, coastlines to mountaintops, we all can sense something in his poetry of his lyrics and raw, rootsy sound that captures part of who we are as a people.
This timelessness is a precious exception to much of the musical “product” being manufactured today. Yet Riviere lives in our present too, as his latest album demonstrates. For all its grounding in tradition, Red and Blue is tuned into the challenges of today.
“We’ve gone through an economy that’s been the worst in my lifetime and we’re not out of it yet,” says Riviere. “It’s affected all of us: neighbors, friends and us too. This sent me back to writers who’ve thought about the human condition and how we can integrate ourselves with the landscape. So my family and I are working now on how to sustain ourselves and be as self-sufficient as possible.”
This decision represents not a retreat from contemporary uncertainties but rather a return to the sources of our national identity. “I’ve gone back to our rural country roots,” Riviere says. “You don’t have to go very far back in time to when there were lots of farmers in America, a lot of folks working and living off the land. It’s a major part of our framework. It’s the quilt of our tradition, if you will.”
Recorded in the studio of his co-producer Chad Cromwell and performed by some of Nashville’s most empathetic musicians, Red and Blue reflects on this dissonance between what once brought us together and what divides us nowadays. Each of its songs is a story, not so much relayed in specific details as suggested through vivid, sometimes dreamlike images. “Tides” is a down-tempo monolog in which observations about threatening weather (“It rained some today and there’s more that’s on the way”) intersperse with enigmatic asides and images (“Found a note slid under my door: ‘You ain’t coming here no more.’”) A story unfolds not through traditional means but through implication.
Similarly, the ambitious title track evokes places that aren’t specific and yet somehow feel familiar. We’re “up on the family farm, over by Eagle Run and out on the prairie sun.” And then Riviere takes us “up on the boulevard. We got our start with a union card.” Moment by moment, over keening steel guitar and a steady, slow beat, he lays out a series of pictures: houses built by honest labor, babies being cradled, people surviving floods and draughts. There’s no plot, no beginning and end, but every track on Red and Blue is a journey that’s both elusive and powerfully emotional.
Where does this technique come from? “I took a writing class in school – ‘Literature of the American West,’” Riviere remembers. “One thing that struck home with me was the professor saying, ‘If you can write like a Native American talks, you would really be something.’ Native Americans often paint pictures with their words. They talk in metaphor. It’s like, ‘September is the moon of the falling leaves.’ I try to do things like that.”
Underlying this is Riviere’s reverence for the land and its meaning in our history, a theme that takes its clearest shape on “Big Joe Walker,” whose striding rhythm and mythic protagonist conjure the romantic optimism of Johnny Appleseed. “I think a lot about the landscape,” he says. “It’s the only one we have. If we use it up, it’s done. These resources are finite. And I also think a lot about the human condition. It’s not about politics and all that manipulation, which I try to address in ‘Emily’: ‘pissing down our back and trying to tell us it’s raining.’”
Political issues do surface in Red and Blue, but only within the construct that defines Riviere’s artistry. “Set the World on Fire,” driven by Dave Roe’s slap-back acoustic bass, looks at the darker side of American can-do ambition. Then the haunting song “Shiloh” draws from one particularly bloody and tragic time, but again its power comes from images more than exposition. Over an insistent guitar rhythm punctuated by the a drum booming low like distant artillery, Riviere sings at the top, “Sun and thunder cross the sky … Blood and thunder rode the wind down at Shiloh. Could it happen again?” The message is in the rhetorical question, but the magic is in the context in which it’s asked.
Many questions are left unanswered throughout Red and Blue. It’s a technique of Riviere’s to append them onto the titles of his songs: “Be Here Tomorrow,” for example, addresses on the illusory lure of materialism (“If I were born rich in a fancy home, would we Be Here Tomorrow?”), “Tides” meditates on the larger scope of life and fate (“I want to know why the Tides ebb and flow. Why do they come and go?”). And the sauntering “Walk This Life Alone,” a drama that positions a privileged young man before the tainted legacy of his birthright, personalizes the choices we all make when confronted with the consequences of our actions (“Do I Walk This Life Alone?”).
“Maybe I took too many philosophy classes in college,” Riviere says, laughing. “But the truth is that there isn’t any recipe to life. It’s not like you want to raise a kid so you find a book and read ‘Chapter One: How to Raise a Kid’ and you’ll be fine. There are so many ways to go and so many things to ponder. Life is full of questions. How we answer them or don’t answer them is how we end up living.”
By creating vivid scenes and leaving it to listeners to consider the riddles of our time, Riviere opens his music to us all as few writers are able to do. The eloquence of his lyric and the simple elegance of his composition brand him as a distinctive voice in modern Americana. And thanks to Red and Blue, he stands as well at that crossroads between timelessness and the urgent present, with a perspective that’s too rarely attained yet more critical than ever.
January 14, 2012