Two years after the passing of his longtime bandmate, Terry Turtle, Billy Brett soldiers on, continuing the legacy of Harrisonburg noise-rock veterans Buck Gooter with new album Head In A Birdcage.
Billy Brett is the lone surviving member of Buck Gooter – “the earthly member,” as he describes himself. His bandmate, Terry Turtle, passed away in November of 2019, 14 years after the band formed.
Buck Gooter released their latest album, Head in a Birdcage, earlier this year, and Turtle can be heard on every song.
“He recorded some vocals from the hospital, in his hospital bed, and we included those in the record,” Brett said. “Then I also went through the archives and found samples of Terry playing various instruments and included those in the songs at his approval.”
It’s important to Brett that the world continues to hear Turtle play. He says that he and Turtle were both misfits and found their tribe in Buck Gooter, and each other.
“I spend a lot of time with the Terry Turtle archive, looking at stuff and thinking about Terry and finding different ways to represent him or bring him into the world more,” Brett said. “That was always my intention. When I met Terry, he was just languishing in the scene at his workplace restaurant. He couldn’t make an impact. The people that were in his audience were his so called friends, and they weren’t very good to him. When I met him, I was like ‘we have to get this guy out to the planet. He has to get out of this rut of Harrisonburg and out into the world.’”
The album itself is different from Buck Gooter’s previous 18. Head in a Birdcage is a deviation from the “verse-chorus-verse” rock songs the band was typically making.
“The songs are shorter, and it’s less of a loop and more of a ramp,” Brett said. “The song’s gonna ramp and then end, instead of loop and loop. If you listen to Finer Thorns and then this record, you can see where we were veering off in that direction, but you can also see how tightly wound and more rockin’ those songs were.”
And, for Brett, this LP immortalizes the heartache of losing a friend.
“It was kind of an encoding of a very intense period in my life,” he said. “I was spending all of my time focusing on music, playing shows that Terry wouldn’t let me cancel, and also going to visit him in Richmond a few times a week. The music that sprang out of that was really intense and cool, and it’s something that I really like to listen to and play. I feel like I say a lot of things I really want to say.”
Brett says that Head in a Birdcage has Turtle’s input in a lot of ways, but it mainly serves to pass the baton on to Brett.
“I do think that if Terry had survived, or none of this had happened, we would have made a record that sounds similar to the one that came out,” Brett said. “Terry really charged me with continuing the band. He said ‘I want you to play my music, I want you to play as Buck Gooter. It’s your band, you can do whatever you want with it, but just play my music.’”
Turtle lived life fast; though he was sober for the last few years of his life, he at one point described himself as a “professional drug addict.” But Brett, who knew him better than anyone, says that’s not who Turtle really was.
“In reality, Terry was just this extremely sophisticated emotional entity,” Brett said. “He knew that I knew that, and I don’t know that he’d exactly want people to know that about him, but that is the truth. I always tell people, he was incredibly sensitive and sophisticated emotionally and artistically, in a way that wasn’t pretentious. He wasn’t trying, he just was.”
Brett says that Turtle’s presence can still very much be felt in his hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia.
“I basically had to get out of Harrisonburg because it was hard to live here,” Brett said. “He really is in the zone a lot around here. He had a pretty intense existence around these parts. His ghost is definitely in the streets.”
Brett misses following Turtle’s “manic muse,” and says that he was a huge motivator for making music and moving forward. But more than that, he misses Turtle.
“I just miss hanging out with him,” Brett said. “We were more than bandmates, we were friends. We were family. He was like a brother to me. We would spend Christmas together, and birthdays, and all that. It was an intense connection. I don’t know what to do about that. But I try to do the best by him.”
The last song Turtle ever wrote feels eerie to listen to now. There’s a verse in “Nailed to a Cross” that goes like this: “Laughter from the youth, terror from the old/journey through a game into withered cold/of course we’re doomed to suffer in between/up the different pathways, always turning keys/then it’s time to exit/life was but a sneeze.”
Turtle wrote the chorus from his hospital bed.
“It’s just so hard,” Brett said, and it’s unclear here if he means the music or the emotions or both. “It’s hard to believe that’s what he left. That was all the news that was fit to print at the time.”
Brett says he’ll continue playing Buck Gooter’s music so long as people will listen.
“If I don’t do it, who else will?” he said. “That’s how [Turtle] saw it, how I see it now. It’s not like there’s gonna be Buck Gooter cover bands any time soon. I’m the conduit now for his expression, and I intend to keep it going.”
Top Photo via Buck Gooter/Facebook