Young bluesman Clarence Bucaro takes an unlikely route to success.

Bowling for Columbine
Sounds from the wild: Clarence Bucaro's vintage blues  sounds as untamed as the woods from which it sprang. - Walter  Novak
Sounds from the wild: Clarence Bucaro's vintage blues sounds as untamed as the woods from which it sprang.

On the day last summer when Clarence Bucaro and his hiking partner split up in the mountains of western Virginia, he ran into seven bears and one rattlesnake. He was less than halfway through a 2,200-mile hike up the Appalachian Trail, which he and an old high school buddy had started together in Georgia. And before he could reach the final peak in northern Maine and get back to his final year of college at Ohio State, he still had to endure months of walking through the woods alone.

"It was an intense day," he says, scrunching up his face and shrugging his shoulders as if to add, "But I don't want to make too big a thing of it." His nonchalance is typical of this 22-year-old folk-blues musician, who, without any real guidance, has taken a lot of lonely, scary paths and conquered them without fanfare.

As we speak, Bucaro is standing in his small childhood bedroom in his parents' modest white suburban ranch on the outskirts of Chardon. Located some 40 minutes east of Cleveland, Chardon boasts a fancy new Heinen's supermarket, but across the street, a handwritten sign on the door of the Marathon gas station reads, "Live bait for sale here." "I used to hate this area when I was a kid," says Bucaro. "There was just nothing to do. But now I love it. The country feel up here really adds to my music. I mean, every day I go out to this area in the woods there. It's got this nice feel of maples and beeches, a peaceful, maple-syrup, Geauga County feel."

Even so, his stay here may be temporary, a brief respite between his June 2003 graduation and the serious commencement of a musical career that he has good reason to believe might become full-time. In one corner of his bedroom stands a collection of steel guitars, acoustic guitars, and other assorted stringed instruments, including a mandolin that came with his grandparents from Sicily and a curious-looking African string instrument that "is mostly just decoration." All of it could easily be contained in the camper that Bucaro plans to use as he travels through Florida, the upper Midwest, and the West Coast, making a series of short tours in support of his debut album, Sweet Corn, slated for early November release on Burnside Records. As any blues fan can tell you, the label has a serious reputation, across the nation and beyond, for quality, roots-minded performers.

Bucaro readily admits that he's an "extremely unusual" artist for the label. Yes, Sweet Corn is steeped in old song forms, from New Orleans jazz to bucolic folk to country blues. But it's also matched with international, politically informed roots sounds, from the touches of South African mbaqanga that drive "I Am Just a Refugee" to the traditional Spanish rhythms and flamenco guitar in "Streets of Juarez." And many numbers are draped with the languid, jazzy feel of such '70s icons as Van Morrison, Dr. John, and Leon Redbone.

"To me, some of my songs feel weirdly contemporary," Bucaro says. "I don't feel like I'm going to be pigeonholed . . . I know, like, the Columbus Blues Alliance has already said, 'Well, this is not pure blues.' Well, yeah. But neither are the hundred other whites going around singing about losing their babies."

When he started sending out tapes as a freshman at Ohio State, Bucaro was himself a young aspirant to those teeming white-blues ranks. He might apologize for his initial lack of originality, but then again, most college students don't spend their leisure time hunting the library stacks for old Smithsonian recordings of "all those Blind Willies and stuff." In fact, when Bucaro started playing guitar and singing in high school, his interests hadn't extended too far beyond the classic hard rock diet typically consumed in Northeast Ohio.

"Zen Gotto, that was the first great outfit," Bucaro reminisces of his old rock band. "I had to be a sophomore in high school. [In my] next three bands, I kind of mellowed out. It still was all horrible, but we played, like, Peabody's, Euclid Tavern, Grog Shop. My five friends would come to see me, and my parents. I can't remember a lot of chicks swooning over Zen Gotto."

It was only when his older brother, a onetime theater director in New York, introduced him to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen that Bucaro started finding his own voice and his own quixotic career strategy. For one thing, he almost never played out ("Why do I want to go to these bars and have people talking over my music?"), preferring to blindly send out demos, against all rational expectations.

"It was funny: Right before everything pulled together, I remember being just a wreck," Bucaro recalls. "I was so depressed. I had maybe two quarters left of school, and I thought, 'Oh, nothing's going to happen.' And then everything hit, just like that. The label came out and watched me do a show first, then signed me. Then [New Orleans roots artist] Anders Osborne agreed to produce the album. Then I got his manager as my manager. All within the space of maybe two months. I remember one guy in the group saying, 'Wow, everything is just being thrown in our laps now!' But really, it was that I had been really persistent."

The move that may have clinched it, oddly enough, was Bucaro's decision to simply put aside his musical ambitions and spend last summer hiking the Appalachian Trail, a decision that deeply impressed Burnside. And it was on the trail that he headed further down his own musical path.

"I still think about it every day [and] wish that I could go out there and do it again," Bucaro says. "It's like nothing else, to go out there and have tea on the top of a mountain by yourself. I also brought a little backpacker guitar. That changed my writing style just 100 percent. I wrote 'Sweet Laurel' there. It was about the mountain laurel I saw everywhere when I was down on the trail. To me, it was the most beautiful thing. I was just out there on some overhanging rock, and I missed my girlfriend. And it was the only thing around that reminded me of her."

It's a perfect encapsulation of his larger ambitions for his music. "I want to use songs to display tender things," Bucaro explains. "You know, you have the time where your girlfriend breaks up with you, and you're driving home, and it feels good. That's the tender but happy feel I wanted throughout the whole record. I don't know if I succeeded or not, but I tried."

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