Who’s that strange new folkie? It’s Lindsey Buckingham, the brain of Fleetwood Mac.
“Reading the paper, saw a review,” Lindsey Buckingham sings at the outset of his new album, Under the Skin. “Said I was a visionary, but nobody knew.” The song ends on a punch line—”You should never believe what you read”—but its reviewer actually makes a valid argument. Despite his membership in Fleetwood Mac, Buckingham himself has long been accorded the status of a cult artist: beloved by music nerds, but a shadow next to the band’s iconic singer, Stevie Nicks.
Considering that Fleetwood Mac has sold more than 100 million records, this is a strange oversight. After all, Buckingham wasn’t just some backroom knob-twister! He was the guitarist with the bushy Afro and perennially exposed chest hair, one of the quintet’s three dynamite singer-songwriters, and the production wizard behind the hazy soft rock that came to symbolize ’70s Los Angeles. Most critically, he was the man who broke Nicks’s heart—or was it the other way around?—giving birth to the notion of rock band as soap opera, as well as 1977’s megaselling Rumours.
That album will always define Fleetwood Mac. Yet Buckingham’s own legacy may rest with a different work: Tusk, the sprawling, marching-band-adorned follow-up to Rumours, a sort of Paul’s Boutique or Kid A of its day. “Can you imagine us delivering that album to the record company?” asks Buckingham, 58, speaking from L.A. after putting his kids on the school bus. “Even within the band it was difficult for me. [Drummer] Mick Fleetwood will now say that Tusk is his favorite album—but that took a long time. After it came out and wasn’t a 16-million-copy seller, there were politics within the band that said we weren’t going to make records like it anymore. I probably never would have made solo albums had there not been that limitation.”
Flash-forward a few decades, and Buckingham remains on the path paved by Tusk. Recorded mostly in hotel rooms while the singer was on a Fleetwood Mac reunion tour, Under the Skin is intimate and spare, with masterful acoustic picking and percussion consisting of Buckingham beating on a chair. “Hopefully it’s only a step above sitting in the living room playing guitar for somebody,” he says. “I was trying to return to my center, which is the folk medium.” Ironically, in reaching back to old folkies, Buckingham has achieved a sound that’s very much in accordance with contemporary West Coast artists like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart; even without trying, this guy has an ear tuned to his era.
Skin is Buckingham’s first solo album since 1992, the year Bill Clinton borrowed Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” as his campaign anthem. These two events are not unrelated. Buckingham, who had angrily left the band in ’87, rejoined when they were summoned to perform at Clinton’s inaugural gala. Ever since, the guitarist has had a boomerang relationship with the group reminiscent of Michael Corleone’s bond to the mafia. “It’s like a black hole that pulls me in,” he says. Before the quintet’s ’97 reunion, “we had dinner at [singer] Christine McVie’s house. Everyone literally stood around me in a circle, as if it was an intervention, saying, ‘We’ve got to do this!’ But these are people that I love—I don’t take it lightly.”
The handsome, late-summer mistiness of Skin is a far cry from Fleetwood Mac’s rote reunion material, and Buckingham doesn’t hesitate to say which lies closer to his heart. But he also credits his return to the group with allowing him to grasp his past and arrive at his current work. “It took a long time for me to get over many things,” Buckingham says. “I think it took a long time for me to get over Stevie. It took time for me to come to terms with this huge success we had, which in my mind didn’t seem connected to anything that we were doing. But I’m a family member now and can be friends with the band in a way that I never was before. I’ve come to a point where I’m refining my craft—it doesn’t feel like I’m marking time or sliding down. It feels like an ongoing process of growth.”