It was only in the last few of his 48 years that guitarist Roy Buchanan seemed to find some of the professional peace that eluded him for most of his career. It had been a long career -- he'd run away from home at 15 to join Johnny Otis' fabled rhythm and blues revue in 1955 -- and a checkered one in which expectations, mostly other people's, were undercut by puzzled inactions, mostly Buchanan's. He was a legend who simply wanted to be a blues guitarist, and in 1985 he signed with the small, independent Alligator label and made a powerful statement in the comeback album "When a Guitar Plays the Blues." His 10th album, it was also the first on which he was accorded creative control.
As they had been for a quarter century, guitarists of all stripes would crowd around whatever stage Buchanan played on -- he was doing about 100 shows a year -- osmosed in technique that was as much emotion as it was bravura, the intersection of sound and soul. Buchanan was a pioneer in controlled harmonics and a master stylist in the blues idiom, but that wasn't why such fellow luminaries as Jerry Garcia, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons and Robbie Robertson spoke of Buchanan in such reverential terms or played in such referential ways.
Anyone who understood the primal heart of music could have come to the same conclusion watching Buchanan connect to his Fender Telecaster, slightly slouched on his bluest confessions, arching on his most searing explorations, his jaw always grinding with determination. When Roy Buchanan played his signature tune, the elegant, mournful swirl of "The Messiah Will Come Again," there was no distinction between man and instrument, between sweat and tears, between beginning and end.
Which made Buchanan's apparent suicide last Sunday all the more shocking. He had wrestled with the twin demons of drugs and alcohol for much of his career, quite publicly at times, but he also seemed renewed from his association with his new label, and from finally being unburdened of the hype that had posited him as the American Eric Clapton.
If ever there was a man ill-equipped to handle that kind of burden, it was Roy Buchanan. He was hardly the extrovert one would expect in the role and in the context. He was a blue-collar, rural survivor in a music that had quickly become urban and middle-class. He was a natural primitive, a first-generation rock 'n' roller who helped forge the guitar hero image and then saw it pass him by in its chase of youth. He must have been both amused and appalled at the attention and rewards paid to his guitar progeny.
Buchanan's slow, pleasant drawl was characteristic of his modest, unaggressive personality, and over the years his loyalty to musician friends, or drinking buddies, often led him to work in bands that were no match for his talent. Maybe it just never mattered enough, though Buchanan could complain about a lifetime of frustration with the music business -- from credit not given to corporate hype -- and then admit that he had often been his own worst enemy.
When the Rolling Stones made overtures, looking to replace the late Brian Jones on lead guitar, Buchanan turned them away, saying years later that "it would have been like going from one cage to another ... their music was too confining." When the legendary songwriting and production team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller took an interest and tried to groom him as a solo artist, he failed to show up for appointments and recording sessions.
He seemed to derail every passing gravy train, but his commitment to the music itself was lifelong and intense. His father had been a preacher in the Pentecostal Church of God in Ixley, Calif., and once a month the congregation would get together with a nearby black church, sharing services; gospel would be Buchanan's first exposure to authentic black music, and with the secular side whetted by R&B radio, he was hooked. His first instrument was a steel guitar at age 7, and he would always retain that instrument's edge in his playing (in fact, that's where his harmonics concept came from).
In 1953, at age 13, he bought his first Fender Telecaster, and two years later, after leading his own band, the Heartbreaks, Buchanan ran off to join Johnny Otis' show. His first guitar heroes were the black stars of that band -- Johnny (Guitar) Watson, Jimmy Nolen, Pete Lewis -- augmented later by such white models as Scotty Moore and Roy Nicholls. In 1959 he hooked up with Dale (Suzie Q) Hawkins, moving on in two years to cousin Ronnie Hawkins in Canada, where he performed with the band that became The Band and tutored teen-ager Robbie Robertson in the art of fitting into one. Ironically, that was something Buchanan himself had trouble with over the years. He was seldom an ensemble player, partly, one supposes, because he seldom worked with ensembles at once empathetic and capable.
Buchanan first came to live in the Washington area in the early '60s, working as a barber and butcher while forging the first links of his reputation playing with the British Walkers and other bands in the rock 'n' roll clubs along the M Street strip and the 14th Street corridor. It was one of the first hard times, when his performances and life were equally ragged. He recalled once how a club owner had offered to pay him in free drinks, soon opting for hard cash because it was cheaper. It was also a time for heroin and psychedelic drugs, and he confessed "it got so I'd pick up a guitar and forget how to make a simple chord."
Not for the first time, or the last, Buchanan's friends and family brought him out of his troubles, and in the late '60s he started playing at the prophetically named Crossroads in Bladensburg. Soon the club was packed -- the lines stretched into the parking lot, and the word went even further. Young local guitarists such as Nils Lofgren and Danny Gatton made the pilgrimage, along with just about every rock and country musician passing through town. A public television documentary/concert, subtly titled "The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World," focused new spotlights, brought a recording contract with Polydor (six albums) and, later, Atlantic (three more) and the small Waterhouse label (one). All those albums were uneven; none drew on his passions for blues, '50s rock and rockabilly. The labels tried to cross Buchanan over, but he just wouldn't, couldn't go. And so, while he never retired from the music business, he withdrew from recording until Alligator came calling in 1985.
Buchanan's gift had not diminished, and he was straight again when he recorded "When a Guitar Plays the Blues." The reception at Alligator, and to the new records -- there would be three altogether -- seemed to revitalize not only his career but his spirits. He was the rediscovered hero, but this time around there were no expectations, no pressures.
Unlike all too many guitarists, Roy Buchanan not only knew how to say something with his guitar but also had something to say. His was not a limited vocabulary, but a select one. He could be flashy, but tended more to a supple facility; he was loud and clear, but seldom overbearing; he could make his guitar cry, but never the crocodile tears of rock artifice.
In the end, he was out of synch, perhaps, but he was never out of touch.