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RICHMOND FONTAINE: HISTORY 2015

Richmond Fontaine was formed in 1994 at Portland Meadows racetrack in Portland, Oregon as songwriter/vocalist Willy Vlautin and bassist Dave Harding pored over the racing form and talked music between races. The two took their mutual love of Husker Du, Willie Nelson, X, The Blasters, and The Replacements and started playing music together. Before long, Fontaine was a solid four-piece outfit with an avid fan-base in the US and abroad.

In the 90’s Richmond Fontaine put out three albums on Cavity Search Records (Safety, Miles From, and Lost Son) and garnered praise for their powerful blend of rock, country, punk and folk. Critics took notice of Vlautin’s story-based songs, which have often drawn comparison to the short stories of Raymond Carver and Larry Brown.

In 2002 the band launched El Cortez Records and began work on a trilogy of albums that would earn critical acclaim in the US and UK, across Europe and as far away as Australia. 2002’s Winnemucca marked a departure for the band to a more introspective and acoustic-based style, broadening the band’s audience and catching the attention of critics. In 2004 Richmond Fontaine teamed with producer JD Foster (Richard Buckner, Calexico, Green on Red) on their lauded release, Post to Wire. Uncut named it Album of the Month and included it in their Top Five Albums of the Year, and Mojo called it a “must have Americana purchase”. Working again with Foster on 2005’s The Fitzgerald, the band again garnered rave reviews for this downbeat, stark, literary study of the working class American West. The Fitzgerald also received Uncut’s Album of the Month, calling it “absolute perfection”, and Q Magazine called it “the most beautiful sad album of the year”.

2005 was a big year for the band and especially for Vlautin, who says the band got him the luckiest break of his life while touring The Fitzgerald – meeting a literary agent who was a big believer in his work. After writing short stories and novels for nearly twenty years, in 2006 Vlautin finally saw the publication of his first novel, The Motel Life, on Faber and Faber in the UK and Ireland, and then in the US on Harper Perennial in 2007. The Motel Life earned Vlautin a Silver Pen Award from the state of Nevada and was one of the few works of fiction to make the Washington Post’s Top 25 Books of 2007. The novel solidified Vlautin’s reputation as one of the most adept storytellers working today.

Looking for a change of scenery, in 2006 Fontaine loaded up the van and drove to Tucson to record an album at the legendary Wavelab studio. JD Foster once again oversaw production on this collection of desert-inspired songs. Featuring guest appearances by Calexico’s Joey Burns and Jacob Valenzuela and Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb, Thirteen Cities counter-balances Vlautin’s clean, narrative lyrics with an array of instrumentation, from piano and vibes to accordion and pedal steel, strings and horns. The album was lavished with critical praise: The Independent called Vlautin “the Dylan of the dislocated” and The Sun said “Vlautin’s one of the most compelling songwriters working today, compared equally to great American novelists like Raymond Carver or John Steinbeck and musicians such as Bruce Springsteen or Tom Waits.”

After a year sabbatical and the death of his mother, Vlautin emerged with a notebook of songs that would become We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River (2009). A highly personal and intimate work, these songs are an inventory of love and loss, regret and pain, shot through with instrumentation that expresses a gauntlet of emotion with Fontaine’s highly evolved, hard to categorize signature style. Uncut gave it a five star review saying, ‘Raw, autobiographical brilliance’ and the Sunday Express called it, “A dreamy, reverb-laden masterpiece” – 5/5

In 2011 Vlautin holed up in a room in St. Johns, Oregon and produced a notebook of eccentric, connected songs called THE HIGH COUNTRY. The songs portray a Gothic love story between a mechanic and an auto parts store counter girl. Hot Press (4 stars) is quoted as saying, “The High Country tells an operatically tragic tale of drugs, poverty, violence, infidelity, loneliness, and desperation.” While UNCUT (4 stars) called it “a riveting ‘song-novel’ forked with Shakespearian levels of tragedy”. The band teamed up with long time friend and producer, John Morgan Askew and as well Deborah Kelly (Damnations, RF’s Post to Wire) who sang the part of the girl. Her sister Amy Boone (Damnations, The Delines) toured with the band in 2011.

Vlautin has since published three more novels: Northline (2008), which was a San Francisco Chronicle Top Ten Bestseller, and Lean on Pete (2010), which won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and was Hot Press’s book of the year, and The Free (2014). In twenty years, Vlautin and Richmond Fontaine have produced nine albums, four novels, an instrumental soundtrack for a novel (Northline), two live recordings, and an EP.

The movie version of Motel Life (2012) starring Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristoffersen came out to much critical acclaim. The Washington Post calling it “outstanding and enthralling” while Rolling Stone called it “an affecting piece of film-making”.

After a three year hiatus Richmond Fontaine has once again teamed up with producer John Askew and has just wrapped up work on their new album You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To, due out in 2016.

Photo by Vivian Johnson