WILLY VLAUTIN RESIDES past a series of snaking roads and unmarked driveways, deep within a tree-cloaked swath of land in rural Scappoose that is best reserved for farmers, meth cookers, or those who just want to be left the fuck alone.
Vlautin fits none of those descriptions. Instead, he uses this parcel to raise a pair of horses and live a secure domestic existence free of the slump-shouldered poetic gloom that permeates his music and novels. Here in Scappoose, no one bets their final dollar on a trifecta, swallows their salvation at the end of a bar, or feels the last threads of hope slide through their calloused fingers. With the exception of an intimidating beast named Dash—a monstrous former racehorse from the leaky roof circuit, who once tossed Vlautin down a ridge—there is little excitement here. But just in case he needs to visit that darkness—that doomed locale where we all expect him to forever linger—adjacent to the stable, there's a bar on the property. Well, actually, it's a shed stacked with albums, but it'll do.
Vlautin is the author of both a pair of critically acclaimed novels and a series of recordings with long-running band Richmond Fontaine (which are equally celebrated, but primarily overseas, where the band is more appreciated than on their home turf). In fact, the band—Vlautin, Dave Harding, Sean Oldham, Dan Eccles, and Paul Brainard—barely tours America anymore, trading the long drives and the short draws for the comfort that comes with performing across the pond. Their track record with American record labels is either dubious or cursed—nearly all have gone under shortly following the release of a Richmond Fontaine title. As Vlautin jokes, "We can lose a lot of people's money."
For the likes of Richmond Fontaine, the "big in Europe, yet small in America" conundrum is rarely resolved; it's not a problem with a standard solution. (Make a more American-sounding record? Move?) But if there were ever to be a breakthrough, a moment in the run where domestic tour dates outnumber overseas shows, it would be with the release of We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River, which is without a doubt the band's finest moment to date.
In Richmond Fontaine songs, much like in Vlautin's novels (his third, Lean on Pete, is due out from Harper Perrenial next April), the songwriter works with very little. There are characters (usually desolate) and musical backdrops (desolate as well) and Vlautin goes from there, filling in the gaping starkness with vibrant descriptions, prosaic suffering, and soft redemption. Throughout We Used to Think, the band's music is an exercise in deep restraint, with Paul Brainard's pedal steel gently cooing at the side of Vlautin's tired rasp, their alt-country roots and bar-band rambunctiousness becoming little more than a hint at what could be.
Since Vlautin effortlessly deals in "half truths and half lies," the blurred reality behind We Used to Think entirely hinges on the listener's perception, but its autobiographical nature and deep emotional undercurrent are hard to ignore. As Vlautin explains while nursing a can of Coors—his philosophy being that the worse quality the beer he consumes, the less he'll want to drink—"Only a few of my songs are complete lies and only a few are by the book."
When his lyrics refer to the Yukon Lounge, it's probably the Yukon Tavern on SE Milwaukie, and depending on your penchant for cheap drinks in the dregs of Southeast Portland, you probably know of it: the blood-red carpet, tired clientele, and shuffleboard set interrupted by a large television perched atop the board. In "The Boyfriends," a protagonist, who might or might not be Vlautin, befriends a woman ("She said she wasn't used to drinking but I could tell she was") at the Yukon. They end up consummating their drunken relationship at her apartment atop a pile of their rapidly discarded clothes, until her child interrupts them, leading the startled narrator to desperately plead, "Man, I didn't know she had a kid/Please, I ain't like that."
From there, the protagonist's memories kick in—there is, for example, the ex-boyfriend of his mom who "lived in a Winnebago who would always make my mom cry"—and the fine line between songwriting fiction and Vlautin's childhood becomes smudged. "It's been something I've thought about for years, but I would never have written it if my mom was alive," he pauses, "even though it's true.
"She was a single mom that was trying to raise two sons and find a guy that she loved and loved her, but I fucking hated them," Vlautin recalls. "I didn't like any of them except for the guy she finally settled with. I liked him. But it took me years. The other guys were fucking dirtbags, and I don't know why I feel so strongly about it, but they were."
Vlautin continues, "There's something really unsettling about seeing your mom with a guy. Maybe it's the uncertainty, or that she would change who she was when she was around him. That's always frightening for a kid. I'm just trying to figure out why I'm so fucking pissed. I'm 41 years old and I'm still mad at that shit, and I don't know why."
The sheer vulnerability and loosened reins of "The Boyfriends" is the exception on We Used to Think—on the remainder of the album, Vlautin tells stories; the boxer's lament of "43," the heartstring-tugging "You Can Move Back Here," and the album's magnificent closing number, the near-spoken word "A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses."
A former truck loader and resident of Reno, Nevada, Vlautin stumbled into music. While his peers battled to achieve a fanbase, he had far worse obstacles to overcome: "I played in bars for seven, eight years, and the same 10 people would show up. I got heckled for years—it was brutal. I'd be playing these sad folk songs and these drunk guys would come up while I was playing and try to take my guitar from me." He adds, "When I moved to Portland I wouldn't play by myself for years because of that."
But none of that can compare to one of Vlautin's first steady gigs: "I used to open for a Jimmy Buffett impersonator, and he would say, 'Whatever you do, if I see any people leaving I'm going to pull you offstage because you're not going to take my crowd by being so shitty.'" It's at this moment that Vlautin—a successful author, musician, and probably the single most genuine and kind person you will ever meet—freely admits, "I'd fucking kill that guy if I saw him now."
Just a warning to all the fake Jimmy Buffetts out there: Watch your back.