To succinctly sum up Richmond Fontaine’s watering hole of choice: Lucky’s, isn’t.
The band’s co-founders — singer-songwriter Willy Vlautin and bassist Dave Harding — have chosen to meet at what might charitably be called a workingman’s neighborhood joint in the heart of inner-city Portland, Oregon. You could also accurately call Lucky’s an alcoholic’s bar, the kind of down-at-the-heels place that scatters distractions such as satellite TV and electronic games of chance around its smoke-encrusted environs so as to convince the resident crowd that its addiction is less important than the good-time backdrop upon which it is nurtured.
How one views this metaphoric glass — half empty, half full; nicotine-stained tar-pit trap for boozers or comfortable hideout for the blue-collar faithful — has a lot to do with Richmond Fontaine’s music.
“Sometimes, you’ll get to know a guy and start realizing he’s not the guy he’s singing about,” Vlautin says. “The people I write about are trying to make heavy decisions when they shouldn’t be making any decisions at all. They’re not strong enough to make their own decisions, so they get led around by other people. Or they’re just tryin’ to catch up. Like the guy who tries to stay sober for a month: ‘I’m so proud of myself for stayin’ sober, I’m gonna go get a drink.’ You get him back to square one and feelin’ good about himself, then he falls right back down and has to fight all the way back.
“That guy makes a lot of sense to me. And I don’t like him at all. But that guy is me most of the time.”
As Vlautin and Harding thread their way through the conversation, it’s apparent that such believability is of paramount importance to Richmond Fontaine. Steadily sipping their Jim Beam and sodas, the two will often compliment other songwriters with what passes for the highest praise they can muster: “When he sings, I believe that guy. I believe every word he says.”
Vlautin’s songs — starkly drawn sketches that essay the plight of the economically and emotionally downtrodden, drifters and burnouts rolling across the barren American landscape like so much tumbleweed, working men and women scratching out a meager living from paycheck to paycheck — reveal a debt to authors such as John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver more than to any musical source. (It’s worth noting that Vlautin has also written three novels and published several short stories, some of which overlap with the content of his songs.)
Sure, there are trace elements of Springsteen’s Nebraska-era blues, or of the up-by-the-bootstraps attitude conveyed in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River. But Vlautin’s song-stories transmit an uncommon empathy for their characters — particularly those on the band’s fifth and finest studio record, Post To Wire (available Nov. 1 through the band’s website and Miles Of Music, with broader release to follow in January).
This said, Vlautin is quick to reject any suggestion that he has been nominated the Poet Laureate for the Proletariat. “I’m not a big thinker, you know,” he chuckles. “I like talking about my songs, but I’m not articulate about the state of the world. I’m not a social commentator. I’m just trying to muddle through my situation.”
Harding offers another perspective. “That new Quasi record, where Sam [Coomes] says, ‘Fuck Bush, fuck Cheney,’ well, it’s great that he can do that. And I’ve thought about whether our band could say something like that in a song. We all have our personal beliefs, but in this band…” he drifts off, searching for the right words to signal “thanks, but no thanks.”
“I like creating a world. The thing is to try to get someone in the shoes of the guy you’re writing about,” Vlautin posits. “If you can get one thing in there that makes someone think they’re really there, then you’ve won. All those guys [on Post To Wire] could be me, if things fell apart. I write dark stuff mostly because I think to myself, ‘I could end up there just as easily as he did.’”
Indeed, Vlautin knows well the darkness, doom and desperation he sings about so believably. Before moving to Portland when he was 26, Vlautin came of age in Reno, Nevada. “I spent the ages of 18 through 25 in casinos,” he relates. “Me and a couple of guys would go drink there after work. Reno’s a rough town and there’s a lot of really dark people there; not dark in a violent sort of way, but in the fact that they’ve lost their wages gambling.
“They’ve moved to Reno because there’s cheap jobs, cheap food, cheap drinks, and they get caught up in the drinking and gambling that brought them there in the first place, underneath it all. There’s a hundred motels within a mile of downtown Reno that are all residential, so it’s all a bunch of transient guys. And I started hanging out there because I figured this is where I was going to end up, so I might as well get used to it. I’m gonna end up down and out, so I need to figure out how I’m gonna live when I’m down.”
As a songwriter, Vlautin places himself squarely in the midst of such an environment, drawing upon his workaday experiences as a concrete pourer, janitor, delivery driver, warehouse laborer and house painter for inspiration.
“I’ve always had a real problem with people saying that my people are ‘white trash,’” he says. “I just think they’re people trying to get by. Most of those people [I write about] would never consider themselves white trash. Everyone’s got respect for themselves to some degree; you don’t categorize yourself as a loser, you’re always thinking that you’re going to be all right.”
“You write about people like you care about them,” agrees Harding. “You’re not setting them up to make some kind of judgment about their lives.”
The elements Harding admires about Vlautin’s craft are what characterize Richmond Fontaine as latter-day inheritors of ground first trod by Woody Guthrie, back when protest songs were truly provocative and a certain level of national discourse was encouraged instead of cast aside as unpatriotic. Post To Wire is a cup of bitterness and betrayal that repeatedly runneth over: “Two Broken Hearts” charts the end of the line where relationships jump the tracks; “Polaroid” tells the tale of a family whose bonds are dissolved in the acid bath of economic decline; “Willamette” is the abruptly unfinished story of two brothers on the run from their piecemeal upbringing.
The songs are stitched together by a loosely coupled narrative (structured as a recurring series of short spoken-word tracks) involving a character named Walter Denny, whose postcards from society’s margins describe a world where stealing from your friends, fistfighting over a girl and ill-fated plans to join the army are pretty much the best that can be hoped for. The issues the songs raise are specific in their details and truths, but universal in their interaction with the world.
Vlautin finally left Reno for Portland in the mid-1990s after deciding to pursue his music more seriously. The vibrant Portland indie scene was one appealing draw; housing was also cheaper than in Reno, with the basements typical of the city’s residential architecture offering free practice space for the budget-minded. The band was conceived at a local racehorse track (“I’m an addict of the worst kind,” offers Vlautin with a laugh; “I go every weekend, and I always lose…it’s a problem”). Its name was inspired by an encounter Harding had while on a road trip with a friend.
“Richmond Fontaine was this guy we met down in Baja,” Harding recalls. “I think his name was Ricardo Fontaine, and we kind of Americanized it.” Fittingly, Fontaine was a hard-partying American expatriate from Wyoming who just up and disappeared one day with nary an explanation.
The band evolved into its present lineup — Vlautin, Harding, drummer Sean Oldham, and multi-instrumentalist/pedal steel virtuoso Paul Brainard (who has also toured with Alejandro Escovedo) — after its third record, 1999′s overcast and troubling Lost Son. (New guitarist Dan Eccles — a guy Vlautin describes as “an optimist in a van full of guys with self-doubt” — was convinced to jump aboard this summer.) Seemingly endless touring and Vlautin’s continued artistic growth resulted in 2002′s Winnemucca, an album centered around tales of a remote cowtown in northern Nevada populated by rednecks and the Basque who settled in the area.
Post To Wire represents a transition of sorts. Produced by roots-rock veteran J.D. Foster (a former bassist for Dwight Yoakam, Alejandro Escovedo and the Silos whose production credits include Richard Buckner, Marc Ribot and Green On Red), it features two sparkling duets with the Damnations’ Deborah Kelly, and is more varied in its sonic approaches and more emotionally complex than its predecessors. The band was sufficiently inspired by the experience to record what Vlautin calls its “folk album” with Foster, provisionally titled The Fitzgerald (after a casino in Reno) and due sometime early in 2004.
Vlautin figures the songs on Post To Wire will have the band’s audience pulling for his cast of beautiful losers in ways he hasn’t managed before. “They’re like parts of me, or friends of mine,” Vlautin says. “The kid in ‘Willamette’ whose brother disappears? I hope his brother comes back. But most likely he won’t — he’s on a bender. The couple in ‘Two Broken Hearts’, I hope they’ll live happily ever after, ya know? I really do. The guy in ‘The Longer You Wait’, I hope he and his wife patch it up, his wife gets sober.” Vlautin’s assessments imply both optimism and resignation in one breath — much like the songs and stories he writes for his band.
Lester Bangs once suggested, three decades ago, that America was “disintegrating with a rapidity that’s even shocking some of the dissidents.” Years later, he eventually arrived at the conclusion that “art is more important than politics in the long run anyway.” In the music of Richmond Fontaine, it seems abundantly clear that both sentiments are equally true, and equally real.