In his novel The End Of The Affair, Graham Greene held that “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
In 2016 Willy Vlautin announced the end of the chapter for Richmond Fontaine. He chose the moment when he made that announcement. “RF has had a great 20 + year run and these guys are my best pals so it’s a tough decision but the right one.”
Richmond Fontaine has been giving us their own brand of haunted, pointed, alt-country for more than two decades. In their writing and arrangements they’ve chronicled the heart and soul of America’s disenfranchised, and they’ve wound songs around characters from Vlautin’s novels. Novels that have been compared to Bukowski, Steinbeck, and Carver.
This article is a life and times of the band, from early beginings to their farewell tour. It was written just before they split in 2016, previously posted on Americana UK. However, with the announcement of their new album to soundtrack Willy Vlautin’s latest novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, it made sense to air the article again. The piece includes the voices of all Richmond Fontaine band members at the time of their swan song, as well as Delines bandmate Amy Boone, and long time friend & colleague Fernando.
“Willy is one of the best lyricists and novelists in the world and I don’t like to mention names but I hear bands copying his lyrical writing style all the time but just not as successfully” Vlautin’s long-time friend and musical running mate Fernando Viciconte told me. “I’ve known Willy since 1995 and RF and my band have performed countless shows together over the years and I consider them all very close friends. It gets rather incestuous with us; we even share two permanent band members in Dan Eccles and Freddy Trujillo (I started my band with Dan Eccles in 1994 and Freddy (Trujillo) has played with us since 2001 off and on).”
I asked what impact he thinks Richmond Fontaine has made on music in general, whether that is Americana, alt-country or whatever genre. “I don’t know how influential they are musically in alt. Country or Americana world” he responded, “because like my current touring partner (Dan Stuart), I hate both those terms. But in terms of music … no one does the cosmic waltzes like RF. 6/8 time, ambient soundscapes that conjure the great American expanse do not get recorded any better by anyone in my opinion.”
“I think that they have been very influential on not only the music scene in Portland but in Europe as well” Viciconte added. They’ve toured, home and abroad, lugging the records and signing the posters, helping them to become bigger in Europe than they are in the States. “We’d already seen the US” said Vlautin. “We did okay in the US but it was always the same. We were just scraping by. Also one of the things that kept RF going was we were all on the same page about touring. None of us wanted to tour that much so we just chose Europe because we had good management with Chris at Décor Records and it was exciting and exotic.”
They’ve released 10 studio albums with sounds and moods stretching from ambient to country rock, to folk, and beyond. And they’re giving us one last record, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To, before they leave the stage.
However, let’s start when Richmond Fontaine was first formed. “I moved to Portland, Oregon to be in a real band” Willy Vlautin explained in the long list of questions I had sent him. “For me it was the least intimidating big city on the west coast. I worked for a trucking company in Reno and they transferred me. I wasn’t young, maybe 26 or so. It took all I could just to leave Reno. I didn’t have a lot of confidence and I loved it there. But I wanted to be in a real band.”
He had started his first band when he was 16. “My cousin was in it and another friend of mine. The songs I wrote were like the ones I write now but worse. But country rock. That’s what I always liked. I wanted more than anything to be in Rank & File or the Long Ryders or Green on Red or Los Lobos. Back then I was a huge fan of the LA roots rock scene. My cousin wrote way better songs than me but he was smarter and got over being in a band. I never had much talent but I could never quit.”
“Once in Portland I more or less floundered for a long time. But I got to see some great bands and eventually met real musicians, which was always my dream.” Eventually he met a kindred soul in Dave Harding who had similar interests and a similar outlook. Together in 1994 they made those first tentative steps towards forming Richmond Fontaine. “We both were transplants to Portland and we both wanted to be in a real recording band. We both loved Willie Nelson, X, Husker Du, and Bob Dylan.”
“He (Harding) and I both don’t have a lot of confidence or self-belief” he continued, “but together we had just enough to keep stumbling along. I remember when we had finished our second record, and not many people cared about the band, and we’d split ways with our drummer. He and I had to now run things and even running a small time unsuccessful band was intimidating. But he and I didn’t have anything else going on. He had a nothing job, I had a nothing job. So we kept going. He was nice as hell to stick with me and I’ll always be grateful for that. And we hit our little patch, you know? We got to see parts of the world we never would have seen, and we got to play with some of our favorite bands. All great things when you have the music bug.”
I asked if it was like the foundations had crumbled on a healthy building when Harding left the band to live in Denmark last year. “It did” was Vlautin’s reply. “Dave’s the rock and roll heart of the band. He is a great gauge of what works and what doesn’t. He instinctively always knew which songs were good, which weren’t. Which ideas were good and which weren’t. I always had a much harder time with that. He also got (producer) JD Foster to work with us and that changed everything for us.”
By 1999 Paul Brainard’s pedal steel was a fulltime feature in the band. “I’ve always been obsessed with pedal steel and I got lucky when I met Paul” Vlautin explained about Brainard’s contribution to the music that Richmond Fontaine has made. “I was working as a shipping/receiving clerk and my boss was in a band and I asked him if he knew any steel players and he told me about Paul. I dropped off a cassette in Paul’s mail box and then stopped by a week later. I didn’t know him at all. I just stopped by his house, woke him up, and we’ve been friends ever since. I love instrumental music and with Paul I began writing a lot more of it. He’s taught me a lot, put up with my rudimentary ideas, and he really helped up RF’s musicianship. He also introduced us to Sean (Oldham), the Magic Garden, and Sammi Smith.”
Sean Oldham by that stage had taken over the role of drummer for the band. “Hooking up with Sean was the luckiest thing that ever happened to the band” Vlautin stated simply. “He’s the leader. We call him HQ. He calls the shots for RF and he’s also the most accomplished musician in the band so he’s the band leader as well. Besides that he’s like MacGyver. He can fix anything, knows how everything works, knows what currency every country has, knows who the president of each country is, knows how to invest money. He can re-wire your house and drink you under and over the table at the same time. He’s the coolest.”
Interestingly, Oldham seems to have accepted his role as Richmond Fontaine’s MacGyver, without too much simmering resentment. “I joined the band back in ’99” he told me. “They claimed to be looking for a drummer but they did ask a ton of questions about mechanical and carpentry skills. It was kind of like a Karate Kid type of deal. Willy insisted on using a drum machine at the gigs until I painted his garage and fixed the wiring in Dave’s basement, where we rehearsed at the time. It would have been more embarrassing if anyone attended the gigs. Once they let me actually play the drums we became much more popular and 7-8 people would show up if there was no cover charge. Willy still packs the old drum machine and will occasionally pull it out and threaten to use it to boost my spirits before a big show.”
When Dan Eccles joined, Richmond Fontaine started to take itself more seriously as a band, started to treat themselves as proper contenders. “Dan was always Dave and my favourite guitar player in Portland” Vlautin admitted. “I remember our first tour with Dan and we were driving through Wyoming, and we were all hungover and hanging by a thread. Dan, who never really drinks, said, ‘What did you think about the gig last night? I messed up few times. I thought maybe the middle of the set dragged.’ By then we’d been together 6 years maybe and we never talked much about gigs or fucking up or our playing or how we were doing, the set and all that. All we did was drink our way through gigs. Drink our way through towns. Everything changed after Dan. The lightbulb went off. We started drinking less and worked on our set. I’ve always felt he’s the heart of RF. He always plays twice as hard as any of us and he always shows up trying to deliver. He’s the soul. He’s also one of those guys I never get tired of hanging out with.”
Eccles has gained a lot out of it as well. “Traveling all over the world playing guitar has been a high light of my life. It’s hard to say which gig was best or the highlight of 13 years of being in the band. That being said, the most meaningful part of it all I think are the friendships I have with the other members of the band. They are some of my very favorite people and I couldn’t have done what I mentioned above without them. They’ve helped me to be a better person….”
The most recent edition was Freddy Trujillo. As bass player for Vlautin’s second band, the Delines, it was a natural choice to bring him on board when Harding left. “Freddy is one of the best bass players I’ve ever met. A lot of the Delines songs work because he’s playing bass on them. He’s a great singer/songwriter as well. He’s also one of the greatest guys we know. When Dave left we didn’t even think about it. We all wanted Freddy. We got lucky he said yes.”
Trujillo’s take on joining the band gave a strong insight into how they work together, how Vlautin’s songs are worked on by the band. “The highlights for me were in the pre-production. I can still remember the first day. Even though I had done the Delines record with Willy and Sean or a Fernando (Viciconte) record with Dan, this was a different playing field in my head. This was an established band. I had to figure out how I was going to fit into their process.”
“The first days of these practices Willy would introduce a song and Dan, Sean and I would just listen. I didn’t really know whether to play or listen I just followed Dan and Sean. And it went on like that for a whole summer and we would build these things up. I remember one day leaving practice and being a little depressed after doing “Night In The City”. A lot of that song hit close to home at the time. That was beautiful to be emotionally involved in these things! But it wasn’t all serious. You might think it from the sadness of these lyrics, but we actually laugh a shit ton in the studio. Willy and Sean are hilarious together. Lunch time is a big part of our rehearsals as well. I love when we play a song or two and immediately start talking about where we are going for lunch. Usually Vietnamese! We love Pho!
I asked Vlautin how song writing with the band works. “The way RF has worked is I bring in a song, usually built as a folk song and then we overhaul it”. Needless to say, it’s important that the whole band is on board. “Everyone chips in. The song has to pass the band test. If the band doesn’t like it or they get tired of playing it then it goes. It’s up to the song itself to survive. I can’t begin to tell you how lucky I felt to be the guy writing the songs. All the guys in Fontaine can write.”
Willy Vlautin is well aware of the tenor of his songs; he’s conscious of their starkness. “For years I felt bad that my tunes were so dark. It used to keep me up at night. I’d always try to write catchier songs, easier going songs but in the end I just couldn’t. I’m just myself. I sure wish I could have written a handful of songs that made the guys a few bucks, but sadly my mind just doesn’t work that way.”
But, where does working with all this stark reality leave Vlautin? “That’s a tough question. The early records are pretty bleak because I was pretty bleak. I was an alcoholic with bad nerves, and I always wrote, even as a kid, from the darker side of my mind. I’ve eased up some. At least I hope so. I’m trying, although the new record is pretty rough in a lot of ways. I guess in general I hope by writing about something that scares me or haunts me that it will take the power of that thing away. But hell I don’t know if that works. Sometimes I think it does, sometimes it doesn’t seem to do anything but open it up again.”
Safety was Richmond Fontaine’s first album, released in 1996. It was followed a year later by Miles From, and in 1999 Lost Son was dropped. Tracks from these three albums were re-recorded in 2006 and released as the album Obliteration By Time. “The first two are rough, both recording wise and song wise” Vlautin explained about why they released this. “I was drunk for all my singing back then. I’ve never been a good singer but back then I was much worse and very insecure so I just drank. We don’t own those records anyway, but there are some good songs on those first two so we re-recorded them so people could hear and have access to them. I think OBT has the heart of the old records; we’ve just recorded them better. Lost Son is still available in Europe.”
2002’s Winnemucca gave us a more consistently atmospheric acoustic sound along with the country. (Although the odd beauty like the Obliteration By Time version of “Blinding Sight” were already there). “The Winnemucca era was when I finally began to get some confidence in song writing as well as in my personal life” said Vlautin about writing the album. “I was finally levelling off after struggling on a few different levels. I had my own painting business; I bought a little house, and eased back on drinking. Plus the band was doing better and suddenly Dave and I were playing with two hotshot musicians in Sean and Paul. Winnemucca is where the way I wrote stories and songs began to get closer. Before that my songs were always much darker and in a weird way more gothic than my stories. So it was a good time and in many ways I feel it was RF’s first record. We weren’t a punk band or cowpunk band or a garage rock/cow punk band, we were just our band.”
It was 2004 before the first UK release. This came in the form of Post to Wire, an album highly lauded by the likes of Mojo and Uncut. It was the start of a long and torrid affair with Europe that brought Richmond Fontaine back to the old country on repeated occasions. “We got lucky and met Chris Metzler with Décor Records. And he was the one who brought us to Europe and has helped us ever since. Sean had a passport but Dave and I and Dan didn’t. I’d never been anywhere really besides driving around in the US playing gigs.”
Post to Wire links with Vlautin’s novel Northline. The novel’s character Allison Johnson even has a (particularly gorgeous) track on the album named after her. It’s a practice that Vlautin has been employing for quite a while. “They were always sorta married” Vlautin responded to being asked how long he has been mixing his musical stories with his novels. “I tend to think that they live on the same block, in the same apartment building. The Motel Life (Vlautin’s novel) came out of early RF records and stories I was writing. There are a few songs on the Fitz (The Fitzgerald) that I wrote during the time I was working on The Motel Life.”
When Vlautin holed himself up in the Fitzgerald Hotel of his hometown Reno, Nevada in 2005 to work on the next album, it was something he had done several times before. “I stayed there a lot and worked on my novels and songs there,” he explained about writing lyrics for the pared back, folk leaning album, The Fitzgerald. Indeed he wrote most of the stories for his novel The Motel Life at the Fitz as well, and that same ongoing sense of barely staying afloat blows through the characters that walk the tracks of The Fitzgerald. ”You could stay for $20 a night Sunday through Thursday” the ever practical Vlautin continued. “I used to do that and then stay at a friend’s for the weekend and go back on Sunday. I always liked downtown Reno and it was in the middle of it. Also the Fitz was one of the last casinos with lounge bands and they had Guinness on tap.”
“It was more the idea of drifting” he pointed out about writing 2007’s Thirteen Cities. I had asked about the 13-tracks on the album reflecting its title. “I list 13 different cities in the songs. It’s the idea of moving to these different places hoping you find a place where you fit, find success, happiness. The title comes from an old RF song called “Four Hours Out” – “13 Cities and seven years, always uncertain and still never clear”.
Members of Calexico were drafted in to help craft the highly atmospheric feel to the record, helping to make it sound richer, especially after The Fitzgerald. This was a measured change of direction on Vlautin’s part. “I was excited as hell to record in Tucson so I wrote up a storm for the session. I’m a huge Calexico, Giant Sand, Richard Buckner, and Neko Case fan. All of those artists recorded great albums at Wave Lab in Tucson. So when we booked time there with JD Foster I was happier than hell. That we got to record with Joey Burns and Jacob Valenzuela and Howe Gelb was like a gift from heaven. Man it was the coolest. Just the coolest. And you’re right after the sparseness of The Fitzgerald I wanted intimacy as well as a big lush desert record.”
On We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River (2009) Vlautin’s literary children are planned before they are born. The track “43” introduces us to the character Freddy from Vlautin’s novel The Free about five years before it was published. “It was Freddie” he told me. “I was thinking a lot about the ideas in The Free during that session. “43” is one of my favorite RF tracks. Also is “A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses”, which was the start of the character Pauline.”
“It’s such a crazed record. So violent and gothic and strange. I was a bit out of my mind when I wrote that one” said Vlautin about 2011’s The High Country. This album has a concept; it has a story running through the tracks, treating them like chapters as they progress through the story in lyrics, spoken word and music. It’s heavy going, but to get the best out of this one you do need the whole album. Vlautin observed “I do write in themes. I like records that are like that. When you put it on you know where they were, what they were thinking, what they were obsessing about, hurting over, etc. The Drive-By-Truckers are brilliant at that. But the only concept/story record was The High Country.”
It’s a tragic story about a woman and a man; a shop worker and a mechanic. Deborah Kelly of the Damnations was asked to come on board as the voice of the woman, and this choice went on to affect Vlautin’s plans for the future in quite an influential way. “When we were scheduling touring we found out Deborah couldn’t come as she was pregnant so we asked her sister Amy (Boone). And again lucky for us she said yes. It was on the road with Amy that I began thinking about The Delines. I kept listening to Amy sing and began dreaming about being in a band where I could hear her sing every night.”
The Delines was formed by Vlautin around Amy Boone. He wrote their 2014 album Colfax with Boone’s voice in his head. However, in regard to Richmond Fontaine, Amy Boone has strong fond memories of working with the band. “I associate Richmond Fontaine with a timeline in my life that is both personal and musical” she explained. “They’ve made great records, toured like road dogs, and are really cool guys … It was definitely one of the all-time highlights of my stage experiences. I remember just sitting there getting lost in the music and being able to hear people singing along above it all. The type of audience that came to the shows were really attentive. They locked in with the band. You could feel it.”
At time of writing, Vlautin was still working on his soon to be published novel Don’t Skip Out on Me, and it seems we need to keep an eye out for characters from the new book lurking in the grooves of You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To. Lonnie Dixon, a minor character in his novel Lean on Pete is in there. And it works the other way round too, as Vlautin explains. “Songs like “Whitey and Me”, “Don’t Skip Out On Me” and “Wake Up Ray” all figure into the new book. It just takes so long to write a book that I go through a few song writing jags during it. I can’t help but have my songs leak into my stories and my stories leak into my songs.”
In his announcement, Vlautin said of You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To … “I wrote You Can’t Go Back to give an end piece for all the characters who inhabited the world of Richmond Fontaine over the years … Throughout the new record are hints of past RF albums and nods to past locations that the characters had found themselves in.”
The album is riddled with them; you will suss a different one or two on every listen. “I just figured when RF started the heart of the lyrics and ideas came from Reno, the culture there” he explained. “And then it drifted all over for twenty years and in the end the ideas and characters come back home. Beat up and sometimes ruined, but they come back to where they started.”
Anyone who knows Vlautin’s writing and the music of Richmond Fontaine will know that amid the hard truths and the lost souls, there is generally some hope. You may need to search for it, but it’s there. In You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To you may need to dig deeper. The sense of reminiscence, loss and regret running through the album is palpable in songs like “I Can’t Black It Out If I Wake Up And Remember”, “Wake up Ray” and “I Got Off the Bus”.
“All three of those songs are about coming home” Vlautin told me. “I Can’t Black It Out …” is the most hopeful because the narrator leads with love. He misses what’s gone; he’s haunted by all that’s gone. But there were good things. His friend, his uncle, Brian, his mother” … “I was thinking back about living in Reno. About all the ghosts and people you miss when you drive down a street.”
In “I Got Off the Bus”, the narrator comes back a wreck to a town he left in a wreck. He’s skipped out and damaged and stole along the way only to come back to find nothing waiting for him. He’s self-centred and troubled, but tragic non-the-less.”
“In “Wake Up Ray” it’s that idea of love. A man loves his wife and his wife grows to hate him to the point she throws a pet bird he gave her into a snow storm. That act of cruelty is something he can never get over. Was he that bad, was being with him that bad? Is he so awful? The narrator is a decent man dealt a hard blow, a blow he’s never been able to overcome. So he runs from it, but even in running it catches him in the middle of the night and that’s where we meet him.”
“Leaving Bev’s Miners Club at Dawn” is a brief, ambient drowsy landscape of a track. “I like the idea of putting on a record and suddenly you’re in a different world. I thought Bev’s transported the listener right away. From ten seconds in. Not a pretty world, yet at times melancholy and romantic. I like the idea of easing the listener into a darker world than they might want to be in. As a side note Bev’s is a great bar in Gerlach, Nevada. Run by Bev, an amazing old lady who drinks Coors on ice and loves music and is maybe the coolest bartender I’ve ever met. I used to spend a lot of time there.”
The backstory to “The Blind Horse” runs parallel with Vlautin ruminating on the people around him who have lived hard and are now dealing with the consequences. “Me and a friend of mine were maybe 60 miles from the nearest paved road when we came across a blind wild horse out in a salt flat” he explained. “Its eyes were rotted out, a rough situation. We camped and then the next day drove back to town and called the BLM and one of their guys said he would take care of it. It made me think a lot about life in general. Here was this old horse, he’d had the scars of a full life but he was done and alone.”
“At the time I was thinking how a lot of guys I knew who had lived hard, recklessly, were beginning to fall apart. It’s never pretty when they do, and often by the time they fall apart they’re alone. And so was that poor old horse. It’s just one of those things you see that sticks with you … It’s that idea that you know your friends aren’t living right, but you never think they’ll be the ones to pay the price. Maybe they’ll get a pass. But it is that age where a lot of times the check comes due for living hard. Lives fall apart, marriages finally give out, the body gives out.”
We can gain a little more insight into how Vlautin feels about the characters he creates, from his reasoning behind the track “Easy Run”, which was written with a protective arm around the main protagonists in his book The Motel Life. “When The Motel Life movie came out there was some great reviews and nods to the movie but also there were people saying rough things about Frank and Jerry Lee. One reviewer just said,”Who would ever care about a bunch of losers like them.” That they’re unlikable. I didn’t care about the review, but Frank and Jerry Lee are my pals and they got me through some hard years. It’s hard to hear someone beat up such fragile messes like Frank and Jerry Lee. Guys who aren’t much but are trying. So I gave them the song.”
But what happens after that? If “a story has no beginning or end” like Graham Greene says, what happens next? “I’ll probably just focus on The Delines and writing novels. It takes me so long to write a novel, so much revision and editing that I could spend the rest of my life just chasing that.” Amy Boone adds to that, “Sean (Oldham) just sent me a rough of the stuff we recorded in November. It’s got some cool surprises on it and I’m excited to get back out and tour again.”
The Delines is also writ large for Sean Oldham and Freddy Trujillo. “Next on the horizon for me will be continuing to work on The Delines” said Oldham, adding “RF will continue to play as we love each other too much not to, even if it’s just in the basement.” And for Trujillo it’s a no-brainer “Future plans are the Delines of course. We have the next record in the can. Probably this time next year we’ll be back with that band.”
Trujillo has been working his own upcoming album, Sketch of a Man, featuring co-writes with Vlautin, as well as Fernando Viciconte, and Luther Russell. Dan Eccles has been working with Fernando Viciconte and Lewi Longmire.
As the chapter closes it’s time to start another one. Thanks for everything Richmond Fontaine.