Today’s blog is centred around the multi talented Willy Vlautin.
Willy is probably best known as the songwriter, singer and guitarist in Richmond Fontaine, an alt-county/Americana band from Portland, Oregon. They have been going for just over 20 years and have been long praised by Uncut Magazine in particular. I’m not going to concentrate on Richmond Fontaine but two of Willy’s other successes.
Firstly, Willy emerged in 2014 with the Delines and the wonderful warm country soul record “Colfax Avenue“. Willy isn’t fronting up this band. He has got a female singer, Amy Boone who adds considerable warmth to Willy’s songs.
Colfax Avenue was a skid row street in Denver, which Kerouac wrote about in “On The Road”. Playboy Magazine called it “the longest, wickedest street in America”. In the title track, the narrator says “I got woken up late last night by a friend of his/ Said he left the Lion’s Lair with a bloody head/ He could hardly walk and disappeared.” The literary connection is significant and we’ll come back to that later. The album is fabulous. It is has a warm intimate sound to it that could have come from Muscle Shoals. It is underpinned by sadness though, again a theme that runs through much of Willy’s work.
The standard out track is “The Oil Rigs At Night.” Rough Trade picked this for their “Counter Culture 2014” review, which also includes the Andrew Combs track I featured here. “Oil Rigs” has a lovely soft soul sound to it and first listening it sounds like a love song to a husband working away, lamenting his absence. Listen closer though and it is clear that the wife has no desire for the husband to finish his stint. But what a song, a heartbreaker and one of favourites of the last 12 months. Willy is playing the Gibson SG here.
The rest of the album maintains the same high standards and is a fantastic glass of whisky, late night record.
Willy’s talents extend beyond being in a band though. He is an acclaimed published writer with four novels to his name. I’ve only read his debut “The Motel Life” and it is a highly readable but tough novel. It is a downbeat tale of two brothers who fate has dealt a pretty lousy hand. There is eventually redemption but the road is rough. The story is very well written, if the tale is not a skip through the tulips.
The novel is illustrated by Nate Beaty. Nate is a cartoonist who lives in Chicago and each chapter starts with a sketch relevant to the corresponding section of the story. They really are beautiful vignettes which bring another dimension to the writing.
It wasn’t until I started writing and researching this post that I realised that a film of the novel was made in 2013. It is currently available on Netflix UK and is an hour and half long watch that does do justice to the novel. It stars Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff as the Flannigan brothers. It draws on the illustrations from the novel with comic book illustrations interspersed through the film. It also has a great soundtrack by David Holmes alongside some great Americana and lovely cameo by Kris Kristofferson, as a used car dealer who becomes a father figure to one of the boys. The juxtaposition of Holmes’s electronic based music with the country and acoustic material works brilliantly. The novel and film also hinge upon a Mike Tyson fight, which is worked brilliantly into the fabric of both.
I would recommend both the novel and the film to fans of Bukowski, Carver and anyone who enjoyed such “Fargo” or “Winter’s Bones.” I’m not sure I ever want to go to Reno though. Willy doesn’t want the Flanningan brothers to hang around and I’m sure we all remember the tale of shooting a man in Reno just watch him die in “Folsom Prison Blues.” “Colfax Avenue” though I would recommend to absolutely anyone.
There’s three move novels for me to catch up with and quite a few Richmond Fontaine albums – something to get my teeth into. It appears though that whatever Willy Vlautin puts his mind to, it ends up as a quality venture.
As an only child, I’m not really in a position to comment on the portrayal of the brotherly aspects of “The Motel Life” but my thoughts on it put it in the same realm as this fantastic Bruce Springsteen track from “Nebraska”. I’m going to leave you with both the Boss’s version of this and Mr JR Cash’s, both wonderful.
I’ll be back next time, probably with some cheerier fare.