Judging by the nearly sold out venue and the enthusiastic response the affable, newly 50-year old Oregon resident gets when he steps on stage clutching two drinks (as you’d imagine one of his characters might if the opportunity presented itself), Willy Vlautin is becoming more widely known.
This can be linked to his steadily growing profile as a novelist. At one point tonight, Vlautin describes a romantic early novel that was so awful he ended up burning it lest a burglar might find it and let this potential source of embarrassment loose on the world. His talents have clearly matured since.
Possibly Vlautin’s most moving novel yet, Don’t Skip Out On Me – Vlautin’s fifth – is a typically gut-wrenching tale of a young man betting everything on an impossible dream in an effort to completely rewrite a life that’s given him little but crippling self-doubt and a boundless thirst to escape to anywhere but here. Reading like a particularly desolate Townes Van Zandt ballad in book form, you know it won’t end well. That this doesn’t make the inevitably heartbreaking conclusion any less affecting is a testament to Vlautin’s writerly prowess.
Even so, Vlautin’s true superpowers reside in his songwriting for the recently retired alt. country cult heroes Richmond Fontaine and the ongoing Country-got-Soul act The Delines. There are precursors to Vlautin the novelist’s brand of unflinching realism and unfashionably direct classic storytelling centred on compromised and constrained working class lives: John Steinbeck remains his literary hero, and the likes of Raymond Carver, Larry Brown and Thom Jones aren’t completely unsuitable points of reference.
It’s harder to name anyone living or dead who shares his ability to outline entirely believable characters in equally credible spots of trouble in a few brief, anything but verbose verses.
Perhaps the Reno, Nevada native realises this too. Besides a genuinely illuminating on-stage interview and a brief reading from the new book, the nearly two hour set is dedicated to music. The almost solo format - David Murphy’s pedal steel adds texture to Vlautin’s acoustic strumming - places the spotlight unsparingly on the material. These songs are well equipped to withstanding such intense scrutiny.
The Oil Rigs At Night – a By The Time I Get to Phoenix with the gender roles reversed and the Jimmy Webb tune’s movie-like romance disturbed with the complications of real life – still sounds like a lost classic Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham might have dreamt up at the dark end of the street where Country and Soul meet even though The Delines singer Amy Boone’s warm tones are swapped for Vlautin’s decidedly more limited range.
Vlautin may be far from a vocal virtuoso but his strained tones are the only possible conduit for A Night In The City, themed around a futile midlife crisis rebellion and slowed down to a pace as slow as that titular night must have felt for the worn-out and trapped protagonist.
Vlautin mentions his inability to write love songs. The breezily handled Post To Wire (originally off Richmond Fontaine’s widescreen Americana landmark of the same name from 2004) suggests Vlautin’s confession may be inspired by a bout of misplaced modesty. By focusing on the strains but also the comfort of a long-term relationship, Vlautin’s managed to pen a song about a romantic relationship that doesn’t even glance at the genre’s many clichés.
Elsewhere, Vlautin sheds light on the inspiration for his songs, speaks candidly and with great humour about his background of dead end jobs, limited options and teenage Yes fandom, and reveals just how closely connected his songs and novels are. Literally so in the case of Don’t Skip Out On Me, which arrives with a mournfully majestic instrumental soundtrack by the now sadly disbanded Richmond Fontaine, a few selections of which are aired tonight.
The queue by the book and record stall at the end of this compelling evening suggests Vlautin’s rise is set to continue.