Willy Vlautin Rides West with Richmond Fontaine
by Brett Leigh Dicks
There’s always been a wonderful sense of mystique to the American West: the endless blue skies permeating the soul, the roads stretching out toward the horizon, the towns where living is cheap and freedom is plentiful. It’s been captured in films such as Paris, Texas and Don’t Come Knocking, and celebrated in the writings of Raymond Carver and Sam Shepard. And now, the West’s allure has a sonic manifestation, for it is the heart and soul of The Fitzgerald, the gorgeous new album by Portland-based band Richmond Fontaine.
The Fitzgerald is a hotel and casino in downtown Reno. The cheap rooms throw together people from all walks of life: tourists, gamblers, rock musicians. When Richmond Fontaine front man Willy Vlautin makes the trek from Portland to visit his old Nevada hometown, Fitzgerald’s Hotel and Casino is where he parks his bags — not just because his guitars are safe, but because it puts him right in the middle of a Western town.
“When I go home, I always stay at the Fitzgerald,” said Vlautin. “One time I was there for about two weeks and I started getting ideas for all these songs. So I started writing. I had always wanted to write a Nevada album or a record that represents my experiences with the place. At first I was really scared that nobody would like it because these stories are sad and somber and it’s a different kind of record. But this is the kind of record I always wanted to make.”
Veterans of six studio albums, the Oregon quartet has gathered an impressive reputation for their typically raucous, roots-tinged rock. But the sparse instrumentation of The Fitzgerald finds Richmond Fontaine exploring some new musical terrain. It delves into a world of drifters and drunks, bars and casinos, cheap motels and costly lessons. Plaintive melodies combine with the dark narrative tales to project a bleak recorded reality. But despite its solemn overtones, there is also an enduring sense of hope to this deeply personal recording.
“I was worried that the band wouldn’t like it,” explained Vlautin. “This band really likes to play and this album kind of puts the handcuffs on them. These are stark and somber songs and it was important to keep the record in that vein. They’re dark stories, but I always hope that the people in them are going to be all right. A lot of these characters are different versions of me, so if they don’t survive, then I guess that doesn’t give me much hope either!”
Given such an expressive lyrical approach to this recording, it should come as no surprise to learn that Vlautin has also completed his first literary undertaking. Scheduled for release early next year, The Motel Life is also anchored in the colorful and emotionally convoluted streets of Reno. For someone who has walked those streets for most of his life, it’s a place that Vlautin knows only too well.
“I think Reno polarizes any uncertainty you might have about yourself,” offered Vlautin. “It preys on your weakness because life is cheap there. There are hundreds of old motels where people down on their luck can live cheaply. It’s easy to pick up work — low-paying work — so you don’t have to push yourself too hard to get by. And drink is cheap too. So it’s kind of a trap. Throw gambling and its ramifications into the mix and you have what’s ruined so many of the people that you see walking those streets. I thought I’d end up there.”
Like Carver, Shepard, and Wim Wenders before them, Richmond Fontaine’s The Fitzgerald puts us right in the middle of the American West, where hard truth often runs against romantic notions of peace and ease. So is the romantic perception of the American West with its endless possibilities and opportunities just a myth?
“The idea of the West being the last free place in America might be just a myth, but it’s a damn good one,” said Vlautin. “I’m in love with the myth of the West as much as anybody, so I’ve definitely bought into it. The West is a beautiful place and there is romanticism to it. But it’s a violent and lonely place too. It’s so many different things to so many different people and that’s part of its attraction.”
4•1•1 Richmond Fontaine and Hamell on Trial play Sings Like Hell at the Lobero Theatre on Saturday, July 8, 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit singslikehell.com.