The South’s culture is often known for being simple, traditional, rooted, and unpolished. In the better parts of popular imagination, it’s associated with pickup trucks, fried chicken and cornbread, college football, and the values of working-class families. Listen to any classic country station for thirty minutes, and you’re sure to hear a song about this kind of ethos.
But there is another side of Southern culture—a side that is esoteric, radical, even provocative. An avant-garde side that is all the more striking for having developed in a conservative setting. The people who embody this side don’t fit into pre-conceived categories. Think of William Faulkner, whose combination of experimental narrative and redneck mythology confused both his readers and his neighbors. Or Willie Nelson, whose fanbase ranges from cowboys to hipsters to metalheads, but whose music as always kept a distinctive style. Peter Buck falls into this same category. Although he doesn’t fit many “Southern” cliches, his guitar playing has been highly influential on Southern music.
Unlike the other guitarists on this list, Peter Buck is an adopted Southerner. He was originally born in Berkely, California, but his family moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Buck went to college at Emory University, and then University of Georgia in Athens. While working in Athens’ Wuxtry Records, Buck met Michael Stipe, and along with Athens natives Bill Berry and Mike Mills, they formed the alternative rock band R.E.M. The group began their career by living in an abandoned church and playing small venue shows across the South. Their first album, Murmur, was released in 1983. It gained the band critical acclaim and exposure on college radio station. The band’s “jangly” guitar sound and arcane lyrics inspired many other college rock bands and set the template for what would later be called alternative rock.
The band released several more albums, finally breaking out of the college rock scene and into the mainstream with 1987’s Document. The band reached their peak of fame with 1991’s Out of Time. The album’s lead single, “Losing My Religion,” was a melancholy folk-rock tune with no chorus and no guitars. Instead, Peter Buck played a mandolin while Michael Stipe sang intentionally confusing lyrics. Despite its weirdness, “Losing My Religion” reached number four on the Billboard charts, opening the door for future alternative rock artists to get significant radio airplay outside of college stations.
In 1992 the band released Automatic for the People, which many consider to be R.E.M.’s masterpiece. R.E.M. continued to release a steady string of albums throughout the next two decades, despite the retirement of drummer Bill Berry. The band chose to break up amicably in 2011 because they were at the height of their powers and wanted to go out on a high note.
Peter Buck is known for being hyperactive, to the extent that he was not allowed to be around Stipe several hours before an R.E.M. gig lest he make Stipe nervous. In addition to his work with R.E.M., he has played in a variety of side projects, including the Hindu Love Gods, the Baseball Project, the Minus 5, and Tired Pony, among others. He has also worked as a producer, a session musician, and today continues to work as a solo artist.
Why he is important? Just as Stevie Ray Vaughan revolted against the polished ethos of ’80’s music by drawing on the wild raw energy of the blues, Peter Buck revolted against it by forming a minimalist, self-effacing style with almost no blues elements. Instead, he drew from 1960’s folk and rock, groups as diverse as the Byrds, the Velvet Underground, and the Lovin’ Spoonful. If Scotty Moore and Elvis drew up the blueprint for what it means to be rock stars, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe turned it on its head. Buck’s playing blends effortlessly into the song instead of taking center stage. Often his parts are very simple but help create an unobtrusive background for Stipe’s vocals. Buck’s playing is heavy on arpeggiated chords played with clean tone, taking the energy from punk while leaving behind the distortion and power chords. He often plays his riffs on the lower part of the neck, and uses open strings and lots of reverb to create R.E.M.’s signature “jangling” sound. Buck has played the same black Rickenbacker 360 since 1981.
Additionally, R.E.M.’s career fits into the larger story of changes in the music industry. In the 1970’s, the music industry was centered in cities such as Los Angeles and New York. Only very successful acts toured, and they only played dates in big cities. But in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, punk rock and alternative artists began touring relentlessly across the nation, bringing their music to smaller towns and venues across America, and R.E.M. was one of the most influential of these artists. The eventual mainstream success of R.E.M. and similar bands led to the music industry realizing that a successful band could be from Athens, Georgia, instead of New York and L.A. Through their relentless touring and many successful albums, R.E.M. paved the way for innumerable indie bands and artists to have a shot at success. So if you’re a musician from a smaller Southern town, thank R.E.M. for your existence.