by Chris Familton
When you talk about contemporary alt-country of the last few decades, one name is essential to the discussion – Portland Oregon’s Richmond Fontaine. The band, led by singer, guitarist and songwriter Willy Vlautin, were active from 1994 – 2016, with the core line-up of guitarist/pedal steel player Paul Brainard, bassist Dave Harding, guitarist Dan Eccles and drummer Sean Oldham. Together they released 11 studio albums and a number of live recordings.
Though operating with the same musical tools as a million other country and roots-influenced rock bands, Richmond Fontaine stood out due to their perfectly executed form of songwriting, which took the stories and characters that one would normally find in Americana noir paperbacks and independent film. Within the space of a song they used that to create a deeply affecting storyline or a vivid, impressionistic snapshot of a scene in the lives of its characters.
The band’s earliest releases such as Safety (1997) were primitive affairs musically. Straight out of The Replacements/R.E.M./The Lemonheads playbook, they mixed indie rock with the midwestern jangle and strum of country rock. Vlautin’s voice was there from the beginning though. Never a versatile instrument, his singing is rarely more than a stones throw from melodic narration. The songs were noisier and looser but listen to that album’s title track or the closer Watsonville Waltz and you can hear the band’s core template and Vlautin’s narrative bent already in place. The following year on Lost Son, song titles such as ‘Fifteen Year Old Kid In Nogales, Mexico’ and ‘A Girl In A House In Felony Flats’ peppered the track-listing. Vlautin knew he was onto a good thing.
From 2002 onwards, Richmond Fontaine were in a league of their own. As the Americana scene blossomed they found themselves one of those names that was passed between fans. They weren’t getting the attention of Wilco, Ryan Adams or Drive-By Truckers but with magazines like Uncut in the UK featuring their music on CDs and giving them stellar reviews, the word quickly spread. That year’s Winnemucca and to a greater extent Post To Wire, released the following year, made a big splash, widening their audience and allowing them to tour internationally on the back of critical acclaim.
In 2005 the band released The Fitzgerald and it presented a shift in their sound to more of an expansive, evocative and textured approach to their music. Violins, keyboards, accordion and harmonica added to slow-moving desert vistas with filmic qualities that had the effect of placing a greater focus on Vlautin’s lyrics. Words that detailed heartache, broken souls and the struggle of marginalised characters in places like Reno, Nevada and Mexico. Lines such as “Her husband’s fist, her swollen face, her broken ribs and missing hair” on the harrowing ‘The Janitor’ made it felt like a collection of short stories as much an album of songs.
It was no coincidence that the following year Vlautin released his first novel, the critically acclaimed Motel Life, which earned him the title “the Dylan of the dislocated” (The Independent), plus literary comparisons to Steinbeck, Carver, Fante, and Denis Johnson. That was the start of a literary career that has seen another another four novels published, with Motel Life and Lean On Pete successfully made into motion pictures.
The band continued releasing albums, with Thirteen Cities (2007), considered by many to be their artistic peak in terms of blending Vlautin’s literary qualities with the band’s melodic and melancholic beauty, that sweet-spot where music meets literature. Increasingly though, Vlautin appeared to be spending more time writing and in 2012 he formed The Delines, including singer Amy Boone and Richmond Fontaine members Freddy Trujillo and Sean Oldham. With Boone taking lead vocals it allowed Vlautin to step back from being the front-person and singer and focus on the songwriting.
The group’s swansong album, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To, was as majestic as everything else they released and they went out on a high, with Vlautin stating, “We’ve stopped with a record that we all really like and it’s one of my favourites. We all get along so well, but it’s getting harder and harder to get each guy in the van.” (The Independent). As a last parting gift, they surprised fans with one more additional album, Don’t Skip Out On Me, the beautiful instrumental soundtrack to Vlautin’s most recent novel. Fittingly it signalled the final separation between the music and the literature of the band Richmond Fontaine.