Willy Vlautin and Paul Brainard (of Richmond Fontaine)
May 21, 2008
By Jennifer Maerz
Better than: Watching a David Gordon Green movie
Some songwriters are poets, while certain novelists have a great lyrical quality to their stories. But with the rare exception of the Nick Caves and Richard Hells of the world, you don’t often get a musician whose stories are as evocative in song as they are on the page.
Add Scappoose, Oregon’s Willy Vlautin to that exception(al) list. He writes the kinds of books you pick up off the shelf late one night, and two hours later you’re saddled up at the bar with his characters, unable to put the book down until your eyes are crossing with sleep. His novels, 2007’s The Motel Life, and his latest, Northline, are as straightforward as his songs with his alt country band Richmond Fontaine.
Vlautin’s imagination is populated with people not so down and out as to be outlandishly dramatic, but rather just downtrodden enough that they use booze like an icepack on their aching existence; it reduces the swelling for a minute, but it never takes long for those old bruises to reappear. Add to this the fact that he sets his stories around Reno – the town where you lose your money just as quickly as Vegas, but with none of the glitz and all of the guilt, and you have a recipe for old fashioned depression and the constant yearning for redemption that’s just out of reach.
Sitting upstairs at the Edinburgh Castle last night, we could’ve been in a dark corner of one of Vlautin’s Reno truck stops. The fried smell of fish and chips wafted in the room, and someone put an ashtray for the Holiday Hotel Casino, a stop in Northline’s narrative, under his microphone. Vlautin was at the bar on his book tour, but since he’s a musician as well as a writer, his performance alternated between reading chapters from Northline and playing the soundtrack he and bandmate Paul Brainard created for it.
“This novel wrecked my head so much I had to write music to take my mind off of it,” Vlautin explained to the crowd, which was standing room only once the tables and chairs filled with reverent fans. He initially gave Brainard the Northline manuscript and asked him to help craft what became the beautiful, plaintive acoustic tracks in the CD accompanying the book. “There isn’t much demand for soundtracks to a book,” Vlautin added, shooting Brainard a grin.
So between reading chapters about Allison Johnson, a woman who symbolizes “weakness, getting into bad jams, and the decisions you make because you’re weak,” as Vlautin put it, he and Brainard put the chapters to song using an acoustic and slide guitar, the twang of the latter instrument permeating the room with melancholy sentiment. Brainard played the slide guitar (and on one track, the trumpet), moving between fully formed songs and accenting Vlautin’s readings with quiet instrumentation.
The combination of the vivid storytelling and songwriting worked like a movie, and I could picture a David Gordon Green film – only grittier – playing out here. Or if you’ve seen a movie like Waitress, Vlautin possesses a similar talent as those directors for making you care about the unglamorous people behind the counters of truck stops, casinos, and cafes. Vlautin gives them all heart, even as he’s writing them into dead ends.
Vlautin cares so much about his characters, though, he almost apologizes for the pain he puts them through. At the Castle, he played a track called “Allison Johnson” after explaining, “I beat up on Allison so much I had to write her a song.” And he sang the ballad, pleading with his character “don’t fade on me,” and promising a time when they could stay together “in bed all day.”
Vlautin didn’t play a long set – for a regular show, it was on the short side. But we left with so many more stories than either a typical book reading or a concert. The guy is a consummate storyteller, whether that’s within his songs, between the pages of his novels, or in the banter he uses to share details about, say, the postcards he used to send his grandma from the road. He’s a rare breed of artist whose literary imagination can carry a tune, and whose music can stay silent long enough for him to write novels that stick in your head with or without the soundtrack.
Hear Willy Vlautin: Today, at 7a.m. on KFOG