In 2012 I was on holiday in San Francisco and I stumbled upon a reading at the famous City Lights bookstore. Well, we were visiting the store, checking it out when I saw a flyer advertising the reading. We were back there later that week. Willy Vlautin was there as a friend of the main act, a man named Barry Gifford. You might not have read anything by the prolific Gifford but among his works are the stories that were turned into the films Wild At Heart, The Lost Highway and Perdito Durango. (So you probably know some of his work even if you hadn’t heard his name).
The evening was ostensibly the launch of Gifford’s book of collected poetry but he had invited Vlautin to share the bill. There I was, 10 feet away from Gifford and Vlautin as they read and talked. Vlautin was reading (unpublished) stories that were as good as Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants and then strummed songs better than anything on Springsteen’s Nebraska.
I was a fan of the novels already, had read the first three, the only three at that time. And I loved his music with the band Richmond Fontaine – but that was one of the best “gigs” I’ve been to. A simple book launch transformed. An hour in the presence of greatness. That Vlautin seemed so down-to-earth, so low-key, like your neighbour that you never knew moonlighted, well that was just another part of the charm.
Good as the Richmond Fontaine records were – and are – it started to seem like they’d fallen into that evil trap of being favourites of the critics. There’s even a blurring of Vlautin’s story and songs in The High Country; it plays with the concept-album approach, and is, essentially, a book of short stories set to music; a novel-as-album. I wonder if it sold at all. But it was wonderful. You had to clear your schedule to listen to it – it was more a talking book than album. But if you had the time, if you made the time, it was worth it. There has to be a shelf life on a band like that.
And besides, and speaking of shelf-life, with the publication of The Free – his fourth book – I figured Vlautin had made the decision – he was a writer now. Well, he was always a writer; some of his best work is in the songs of Richmond Fontaine. But in less than a decade he’s managed four books on top of a music career. That’s working hard. I figured he’d made the move to book-writer only. And fair enough.
And then there was an album by a band called The Delines. I had no idea, on first and second listen, that this was a new project by Vlautin. Click that link to read my review of Colfax by The Delines, a debut album. Here Willy Vlautin is in the band, has written the songs, but the singer is Amy Boone, she was in a band called The Damnations. She is amazing – she manages to sell each and every song, Vlautin’s now writing the country-soul classics of today; music that is clearly inspired by the wonderful songs of Jimmy Webb and Tony Joe White, music that is free of whatever limitations there might have been around Vlautin’s own singing voice (I loved his craggy delivery but perhaps it wasn’t for everyone).
I’d consider Vlautin one of my favourite writers if all I had was his music. I’d also consider him one of my favourite writers based only on the three books I’ve read – say I never heard the music (and I’ve heard most of it and loved most of it too) there’s enough in those novels….
He’s also released a spoken-word foray into storytelling; music and words on the 2008 release, A Jockey’s Christmas.
There’s a reminder of the great American literary realism – Carver, Bukowski, Steinbeck, Sam Shepherd – in the best of Vlautin’s work. You can see the influence of Gifford too. That’s why they were sharing the stage that night at City Lights.
So much good work. And I’m waiting now for a book of short stories – the stories he read that night were as good as any I’ve heard.
Meanwhile, perhaps there’s another novel coming. There was a second Delines record and a reunion/comeback/continuation record by Richmond Fontaine. There’s all of that great work back in the catalogue too – the Post To Wire and Fitzgerald albums being a must. Just for starters.
Authors I Admire started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page