Our protagonist is an overweight jockey who struggles to shed pounds—and thus, find work—but that is just the start of his problems. There's his forgotten luggage, the Christmas present money blown at the tables, the allure of the bottle, a corroding family, the toothless man with the swinging fists outside the bar, and various other unfortunate circumstances of a desperate trip to Reno based on good intentions, that is frantically unraveling before his very eyes. Horses, drinking, and being down and out in Reno? This is the trifecta of Willy Vlautin.
A Jockey's Christmas is the first spoken word—although that term, with its imagery of finger-snapping poetry, couldn't be more misleading—release from the acclaimed author and frontman for Richmond Fontaine. Vlautin's weathered voice is set to a stark foundation of moaning pedal steel guitar, courtesy of bandmate Paul Brainard, and the soft accordion of Ralph Huntley, as the author tells his tale in seven distinct chapters. Plus, if his plaintive spoken-word story of down-and-out drunken misery is too much for you to bear, A Jockey's Christmas also features a pair of closing songs about, well, down-and-out drunken misery.
But amid the thick boozy haze of regret and trouble that clouds Vlautin's work, there is an uplifting nature to A Jockey's Christmas, because it is, after all, a holiday story. And while the plump jockey never hears the rattling chains of Jacob Marley, there is a soft redemption to his tale.
"I just thought it was fun," explains Vlautin of his motivation for the foray into holiday storytelling. "I didn't think anyone would really like it. I just thought it would be kind of fun to put it to music. And I thought it was funny that it was a Christmas story." And, if you doubt the plausibility of chunky jockeys battling the lure of the Reno buffet, Vlautin explains that such a thing is really a common occurrence: "They call it 'flipping,' you know, just being bulimic. A lot of jockeys are bulimic."
It's a similar tale that Vlautin has been singing—and writing—about for years now, although in recent years his role as a critically acclaimed author has trumped his status as a critically acclaimed yet underrated singer. Richmond Fontaine exists in that baffling world of bands that are accepted overseas yet ignored here at home, and with Vlautin and his cast of downtrodden characters at the helm, it's a position that they're resigned to accept. "I felt bad because my songs are so dark; they're not going to make anybody rich. So I've always felt really indebted to the guys in the band for hanging out with me and playing these songs."
This dedication to his surrounding cast is one that Vlautin keeps returning to, as he acknowledges the role music has played in his life: "I'm the least natural musician, and I was in a band at 16, but I didn't play sober until 27. Progressively, I got less drunk up to 27, but I would play years of shows where I couldn't even remember the night." He continues, "The band saved my life. All the friends I've made—the guys in Richmond Fontaine have been friends of mine for over 10 years—that alone, even if you're bad at it, that in itself is worth wasting your life for."
And while the literary world sinks its hooks deeper into him—he just wrapped up another book, Lean on Pete—the fate of Richmond Fontaine is explained by Vlautin with a gambler's optimism: "We've always been such a small-time band that we can call our own shots in a way, which is kind of nice. We've got at least one more in us, I would hope."