For Harrisonburg duo Buck Gooter, traveling the world playing music is what being alive is all about.
In a partially unbuttoned, jet-black dress shirt and bomber-style leather jacket, coughing echoes of the rockabilly underbelly of Memphis, Billy Brett jumps off the Gallery 5 stage and into the crowd. Everybody in the crowd, sloshing around Narragansetts and pint glasses of Albino Monkey, takes a bit of a step back.
It’s only been a handful of seconds since a driving, industrial, electronic beat has swept the stage, and Brett’s partner, Terry Turtle, wearing chainmail and the mask of what might be a long dead skeleton king, has just lurched forward into his own complementary riff. But a hole forms below the stage, maybe a result of Brett’s abrupt fourth-wall break, or maybe because the writhing, swaying, head-bobbing fans know whats coming — that the sonic scene will burst out over the dusty floor in the form of flying pieces of metal, kicked and thrown off the stage by Brett like bubonic plague carcasses over a medieval castle’s besieged walls.
It might be a large crowd for a Sunday night. Older punk rockers in faux leather and brass studs — straight-laced types in polos and above-the-knee light-wash khakis; arty students, forearms stippled in stick-n-pokes — but it’s by no means packed. Brett throws back his head and explodes into his raspy vocals, the vacant eyes of Turtle’s mask gaze forward as his large hands pluck seamlessly and aggressively at the guitar hanging almost to his knees, and it’s clear that the duo would be playing no differently at the Fillmore, the Grand Ole Opry, a tobacco-hazed basement, or somebody’s backyard. Under Gallery 5’s gaudy, gargoyle stage and the oppressive, blood-red lighting, Brett and Turtle are giving it everything they have. It’s infectious. It’s intoxicating.
Together, along with Turtle’s aesthetically and sonically modded out acoustic guitar, Brett’s soundboard and theremin, and their 2004 Toyota Sienna, Brett and Turtle are Buck Gooter — a sort of noise-rock, industrial metal act out of Harrisonburg. I approached Turtle before they went on, in the almost deafening silence you get immediately after the first band of the night plays, when you aren’t sufficiently drunk and feel caught like a deer in the soundstage headlights. I asked if the legends were true, if Buck Gooter is what you get when you try to say “fuck you” with your mouth full of Belgian waffles (others have said it was soup and crackers)? The look I received could have signaled ironic humor, or maybe just good old salad day memories — he cracked a smile and confirmed. And I believe him.
That afternoon, I had encountered Buck Gooter in the gray spring sun out in front of the venue. Gallery 5 has a way of jutting out into the crosshatched Jackson Ward intersection, like an island in a sea of asphalt. The duo were locked out and couldn’t load their gear inside, so Brett pulled their minivan, slouching on its axles under the weight, up onto the curb for us to lean up against and chat.
“It was an excuse for two country boys to go somewhere, was to be in this band,” Brett said. “Because I had heard about that, I was like: ‘oh yeah, bands tour and stuff, even little, tiny, shitty bands. Let’s do that!’”
Brett is built medium-skinny, with short buzzed brown hair. He’s 33, three decades younger than Turtle, who’s 67.
“Most people don’t think I’m that age,” Turtle said, looking up from his seat on the ground, leaning up, legs crossed against the old firehouse wall. He does look like a turtle, I guess, if you use your imagination. He has big eyes, a beard, and a shock of white hair. You can tell he’s normally a quiet person, but when he gets excited, he almost talks over himself, tripping excitedly in multiple directions at the same time. “I’m into kung fu. I’m into all this shit now, I work out, I do a hundred Hindu squats every morning, yoga,” he said. “I’m into all that stuff.”
Formed in 2005, after 19-year-old Brett stumbled onto some of Turtle’s art on a restaurant wall and decided to seek him out — as a friend, as a bandmate, as an escape hatch from the overpowering grasp of the Shenandoah Valley, –Buck Gooter has been undeniably prolific, releasing 18 LPs in the past 14 years.
“They say 18, yeah. I guess that’s it,” Brett said. “It’s on the internet somewhere.”
A good chunk of Buck Gooter’s first albums were one-n-dones, small-batch cassette releases shot out into the world and then gone forever. Brett remembers stitching their first record together on his computer, but swore that approach off after hearing the result.
“I’ll never do that again,” Brett said, noting that he’d rather have somebody who knows what they’re doing record and mix them — whether that be in a professional studio or somebody’s basement.
According to Brett and Turtle, a handful of their albums were recorded by Don Zientara, legendary DC DIY label Dischord Records’ unofficial house producer, in his Arlington studio. Zientara is known for recording early Bad Brains and every Fugazi release.
Today you can find about seven of their records scattered over the various major streaming platforms. And you can buy hard copies, vinyl or cassette, from their Bandcamp. Although their focus has been succinctly hardwired on touring, and getting out, the albums are consistently enjoyable and fresh.
I asked Turtle how many shows they’d played over their years on the road. Hurtling through the wheatfields of Iowa, the tulips and dugout coffeehouses of Amsterdam. The wrought iron and greystone peaks of New York City. I expected a wildeyed guess. An, “I dunno. 500? 600? 1,000?” But I was surprised to find that Brett keeps an almost religious record of their tours on his phone. To date the show count is 697, to be exact.
Turtle doesn’t have a driver’s license. It’s not that he can’t, or that he doesn’t know how, or that he grew up in the backlots of some towering city with halfway decent public transportation — nothing like that.
“I’m like an animal — I don’t feel comfortable in a car,” Turtle said.
Rolling down the highway was a fear he had to overcome when Buck Gooter began heavily touring — which was, of course, almost immediately.
“Oh, I’ve had motorcycles,” he said, lifting up the leg of his shorts to show a pale, white scar running up his thigh. “I had a hit and run accident in a place called Bridgewater. And then I moved to Harrisonburg, I just decided I was going to walk.”
Turtle walks a lot, and it’s one of the reasons he believes he’s still alive. After he moved to Harrisonburg, people respected his decision, but would constantly ask, “Why don’t you get a bicycle?”
“Why don’t you walk!?” he’d shoot back at them.
This leaves Brett to do just about all of the driving. In the early days, when Turtle had a bit of an intrusive drug and alcohol habit, highway bystanders — that is, kids peeking through dotted sunshades or white-bearded truckers looking down from their hulking semi truck perch — might have seen Turtle bobbing aggressively to the music and the sounds of the open road. Or maybe he had his head cocked back, passed out cold. It was usually one of these two extremes.
But these days, Turtle has delved into the adventure of sobriety — stone sober, as they say. He spends more time now looking; talking when he feels like it, but also just looking. West Virginia. Kansas. Oklahoma. Northern Canada. LA. Mossy cobblestone. Shark-infested waters. And all the way home to Harrisonburg. I imagine him poking around for vegan food in the neon haze of a backroad corner store, or feeling the air go still and eerie in the blinding midnight of an overlit truckstop.
Many of these moments, these days, are mundane. Dragging. Calm. Brett, an avid reader, might be grabbing a few pages of his current book — or maybe not. Maybe the band is powering through to their next basement gig. Maybe it’s been so many days without a proper bed, a proper wash, that Turtle begins to feel like he’s sinking into his clothes. But eventually, it always ends. They make it back to their sleepy town.
But it’s not always mundane. Both Turtle and Brett vividly remember one muggy afternoon coming out of Tijuana, rolling up to the heavy machinery of a border checkpoint, where something like 20 lanes of traffic funnel into each other and sentries pace around with loaded assault rifles. The band found themselves accidentally heading into the center lane, a paid-for service.
“There’s a big sign that says $500 fine if you go here without the right credentials,” Brett said.
“It wasn’t in English,” Turtle half-muttered.
As quickly as they could without causing an accident, they slammed the brakes and Brett hopped out to face the oncoming traffic, congested and inching towards him.
“An officer came and was screaming at us, and then she started whistling and getting cars to stop,” Brett said.
Eventually — their car turned around and headed in approximately the right direction — the band was sent to talk to another federale, who informed them that they would indeed need to cough up $500.
“And I was like: ‘dude, we do not have any money.’ And he’s like, ‘well you have to pay something, man, do you have $200? do you have’ — ‘dude, no! I don’t have any money!’” Brett said, somewhere north of exasperated while recounting the story.
Turtle told me that he did, in fact, have $300 in his pocket, but he kept mum and eventually somebody from another band they were touring with ran up yelling “20 bucks!” The cop asked them to kindly slip it under his paper because “it’s for me, ya know?” And the boys were home free.
“I didn’t worry,” Brett said. “I would have worried more if it was in the middle of, like, a vacant stretch of road.”
“Guy who looks like Tom Brady can do what he wants,” Turtle said.
I laughed — Brett really does look like the football star.
“Doesn’t he?!” Turtle said, following up, laughing too. “I love Tom Brady.”
These shenanigans came as a cap to an odd one-show tour down in Mexico. First, the band was confronted by the intense poverty of Tijuana, where many extremes collide — “You’re sitting in traffic in Mexico and there’s just people everywhere with these poles with these toys all over them, trying to sell them to the cars, and weaving in and out of traffic there’s legless people on skateboards, scooting between,” Brett said. Later, they turned up at “The Mustache Bar” for their show with another band. All the Americans in the room from the Buck Gooter caravan drank copious amounts of beer, and when it was all said and done, the proprietor simply tossed open the register and gave all their beer money back to them. Turtle ultimately wrote their most recent album, Finer Thorns, largely about what they saw south of the border.
“It’s just something totally different for these gringos — a couple country boys, never been there,” Brett said.
Fourteen years, something like a million miles, and untold gallons of cheap beer stageside, piling up. Buck Gooter said the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park feel like the red slopes of Mars. They remembered crunching gravel up into the holler-pocked hills of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where in the mid-60s, two young couples were the first to report seeing the glowing red eyes and 10-foot heaving wings of Mothman, a beast who would allegedly destroy the Silver Bridge in 1967, killing 46 people.
“It feels weird there,” Brett said, speaking about a giant seawall partially surrounding the downtown strip, shielding Point Pleasant from the river.
“If you go on that side and you walk down the wall, it’s the history of the city in mural form,” he said. “It’s a really dark place. Point Pleasant, West Virginia, I think, was the frontier at one point, and they had to displace — or conquer — the natives to get them out of there, to take over the land.”
Brett compared the grim quiet scene to Derry, Maine in Stephen King’s It, and said absolutely nobody but them was down by the river, on that little trail to take it all in.
One of their favorite places is Serpent Mound, an ancient American-Indian burial ground in rural Ohio, and the longest drive Brett remembers making was 11 hours, when he left an Ohio University at midnight to drive home to Harrisonburg.
Their first out-of-town show was quite literally in a shack in the middle of the woods in that empty expanse of rural wasteland below the “V” made by I-81 and I-64.
“We played a shed in the middle of the woods to three people,” Brett said.
The most memorable moment of that day would have been their host’s extreme irritable bowel syndrome, according both guys, if it hadn’t been for one of the people who showed up to hear them play, filmed them, and told them about a Philadelphia band called Northern Liberties.
“We met those guys shortly after meeting this guy, and they’re still some of our deepest friends in music,” Brett said.
“That guy at that show created that connection,” he said. “It’s just a commercial for ‘every show has something to offer.’ You might get down and out about a gig being shitty, but there’s always some silver lining to it.”
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
The calloused palms, tanned skin elbow to wrist — it’s hard not to think of the blunt realism of the dust-swept Steinbeck aesthetic when in the presence of Brett and Turtle. They’re often as different from each other, and yet so intertwined, as a modern-day George and Lennie. It’s the decades between them, and their personalities. While Brett takes the lead in most social situations, Turtle seems much more comfortable a step or two outside the center of attention. Turtle writes, mostly, and Brett interprets — lashing and pulling and squirming and kicking, all while Turtle stays squared off against the audience, feet set, hardly moving. Just playing.
I asked Turtle if he had to be coaxed from his quiet home to the open road. Brett chimed in immediately that it was the only way it would have happened. Turtle had been painting and writing and playing guitar all his life when Brett sought him out, but from their first discussions of the band, 19-year-old Brett made it clear that they were hitting the road. That was the only discernible goal. No exceptions.
“Well the band started, and I was like, ‘I’m touring,’” Brett said. “I don’t want to be in a band if we’re not going to tour. I don’t want to be the local band.”
“He said if we form a band, we’re not doing it to dick around. He had plans,” Turtle said. “I’d never met anybody like that.”
But Turtle isn’t simply Brett’s ticket out of the Shenandoah valley. Turtle is good at what he does, and it’s obvious that Brett deeply respects him. He repeated over that Buck Gooter is ultimately Turtle’s band.
“He was unlike anybody I’ve ever been friends with,” Brett said, “and remains one of my longest friends … we established a kind of relationship that’s pretty special.”
“He’s a dedicated guy. He’s interested in music and writing — creation — which is something some people just aren’t interested in.”
I asked both men what they would be doing if they hadn’t found music, but my eyes were leveled at Turtle.
“I’d be dead if I hadn’t met Billy,” Terry said without hesitation, he almost cut me off before the words left my mouth.
Brett followed soon after.
“I’d probably just find music to…play,” Brett said, chewing on his words.
“You’re saying if you didn’t play music you’d have found music to play?” I asked with a grin.
“Maybe!” Brett shot back in a jokey tone. “I don’t know, I don’t know!”
Gallery 5’s stage is like something out of a Heavy Metal magazine, if Heavy Metal skewed hellish and gothic. The stage is wrapped in vintage wood scavenged from grand, decaying buildings. A gargoyle sits hunched directly above the performers, surrounded by orange rendered wooden flames. Buck Gooter felt perfect for the environment. Sound flooded the room and Brett began writhing around, strangling himself with chains and pulling the skin on his face back, comically grotesque. Looking around, many people couldn’t help but smile, not with mocking grins but admiration at the pure, raw, beautiful, burst of energy.
The set went quick, maybe a half-hour and some change. The lights cut on, almost jaggedly abrupt. There was no “one more” warning or call for an encore, it was just happening, and then it wasn’t. Just before the applause and the lights and the ambient chatter of a room full of sloppy patrons, Turtle ended the set by pulling close to the microphone, speaking with his southern accent and a piercing, blunt sincerity.
“We’re Buck Gooter, thank you for listening to us.”
Top Photo by Paul Somers
Music Sponsored By Graduate Richmond