Drinking with Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin

In a new column, Casey Jarman delivers dispatches from Portland’s music scene.

By Casey Jarman April 15, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Willy Vlautin says, “I can do afternoon, too. Maybe safer!?” So we meet at Slim’s in downtown St. Johns at 3 p.m. Some afternoon sunlight shoots a bright stripe through the open front door, straight down the middle of the room and onto the pool tables in back. A handful of really regular regulars huddle together in the shadows. We sit at the bar with discernibly bad posture.

Vlautin’s 22-year-old band, Richmond Fontaine—a twangy, artful alt-country crew with reclusive tendencies—just released a record called You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To. He says it’s about paying the price for living hard, a theme Vlautin has touched on often in his songs and his books, hard-bitten novels that have met with great acclaim. The album is vast and lonely, a “blown-out desert record,” he says. “I wrote it thinking it might be our last, and it’s a good place to stop. You wanna leave your pal with the best bottle of tequila you can.”

While our young bartender plays Dead Moon and the Replacements on the stereo, I wonder aloud why Richmond Fontaine never found the US audience it deserved. “I was always ashamed of myself when things didn’t go good for us,” Vlautin says. “They were my songs, and I wanted to do right by those guys.”

Still, the band has toured Europe extensively, and Vlautin says it’s the tightest-knit family he’s ever had. “We might not see each other for months, but then we get in the van and two of them will argue about which 1973 Grateful Dead board tape is the best, and the other guy’s maybe hungover and grumpy, and I get to read my books,” he says. “It’s fucking great!”

On our third drink, a dark pop song comes on the stereo, and Vlautin looks astonished. “How the hell do you know about Dream Syndicate? This album came out in ’81!” The bartender shrugs: “I didn’t hear it when it came out.”

Richmond Fontaine plays the Star Theater on Friday, May 13. For more on Vlautin, read our extended Q&A.

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