Underbelly balladeer

Reno’s seedy underside is arguably the lead character in the songs and stories of Willy Vlautin, who’s coming back to his hometown for a night

Rarely does a song set in Reno have a happy ending. “Out in Reno, Nevada, where romances bloom and fade,” begins the 1937 Woody Guthrie song “Philadelphia Lawyer.” On last year’s Bruce Springsteen record, Devils and Dust, there’s a song called “Reno.” It’s a graphic depiction of a depressing encounter with a prostitute. International music fans must think of Reno as a place populated entirely by friends of the devil that drive on the wrong side of the road and will shoot a man just to watch him die.

Songwriter Willy Vlautin, of the acclaimed country/rock group Richmond Fontaine, makes these seedy Reno characters his primary focus. “When I was in my early 20s,” says Vlautin, “I started writing fiction, and my stories were usually always set in Reno. I used to live off Vassar and Wells, and I’d walk down Wells to Fourth Street and then down Fourth to the casinos, and I just fell in love with Reno and the bars there, like you would a girl.”

His songs are based in the folk story tradition of Guthrie and Springsteen. He has a sharp eye for detail and a cracked country and western rasp and croon. His songs focus on the down-and-out, tears-in-the-beer characters that haunt the romantically sordid dives of downtown Reno. Their stories are often so nauseatingly sad that it’s not surprising he claims to do his best songwriting hungover.

Take, for example, the song “Casino Lights”:

Casino six nights a week

Drinking whiskey and cokes and gambling

Only home on nights when his stomach would burn

He’d lay in the dark, drink peppermint schnapps and wait it out

His sister called at four AM and said there was an emergency

And that they should meet at the Gold and Silver

He saw her in the parking lot, her kid sitting in the back seat

“Aren’t you gonna let her in?” he asked

“It’s an emergency,” she said and left her in the car

Casino lights they only bring darkness to the night

They sat at a booth and she said, “We’re leaving tonight.”

Nate Beaty’s sketches are scattered throughout the novel, <span style="font-style:normal">The Motel Life</span>. Many of them are of Northern Nevada scenes you’re likely to recognize.

Then she broke down and cried

“How long have you been up?” he asked.

“I can’t remember,” was all she said and took all the

Money from her purse, set it on the table, and got up and left

Casino lights they only bring darkness to the night

He walked down the street as the sun began to rise and he

Saw the kid following him dragging a suitcase by a piece of rope.

It’s a dreary tale on paper but all the more so when sung in a weary tone, accompanied by acoustic guitar and touches of plaintive violin, with a melody that could’ve been written yesterday or a hundred years ago. And really, even if it didn’t mention the Gold and Silver, could that little story take place anywhere other than Reno?

Before he could find success as a chronicler of Reno’s underbelly, Vlautin had to move out of town. Discouraged by the lack of local support for original music, he moved to a popular destination for creatively frustrated Renoites: Portland. He formed Richmond Fontaine there in 1994. The band’s first album, Safety, (1997) often bears an uncanny resemblance to Uncle Tupelo. It’s high-energy punk country with throaty, earnest singing. But its detailed narratives reveal the potential of the songwriter.

And after nearly 10 years of rock ’n’ roll toil, Richmond Fontaine finally had a breakthrough. The 2004 album Post to Wire caused a sensation with the (admittedly excitable) UK music press. The popular British music magazine Uncut named it one of the top albums of the year. The album has a full, rich sound with Paul Brainard’s pedal steel emerging as the dominant sound, its clean, sparkling tone the perfect foil for Vlautin’s delicate croak.

Paradoxically, though Richmond Fontaine have been lauded with high praise abroad, they have as yet caught little attention here in the States. “The major publications in the UK and Europe will write about a small time band they like, and that doesn’t happen as much in the U.S.,” says Vlautin. “The press in Europe also seems more interested in lyrics and the American West. I’m a lyric-driven songwriter and obsessed with the West. So all in all it’s a lucky break.”

Last year’s album, The Fitzgerald, is possibly their best. And yes, the album is named after the Reno hotel casino, where Vlautin stays when he’s in town to hole up and write. The album artwork, by painter and former Renoite Greg Allen, drops the Reno name on a casino banner right on the cover. The songs seem especially somber (“Casino Lights,” above, is one of the standout tracks) and the arrangements austere. Without the uplift of electric guitars or the ethereal melodicism of pedal steel, the bleak lyrics have an unrelenting, though not monotonous, misery.

“A madness came over him in the corner of a bar called the Swiss Chalet” is a line that many long-term Reno residents will be able to relate to. It’s from “Disappeared,” a brokenhearted requiem led by mournful piano, anxious violin and drums brushed gently in a death waltz.

Vlautin is publishing a novel, which isn’t surprising given his attention to narrative detail and his affinity with hard-knock life writers like Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. The Motel Life is the story of two brothers who live in motels around the Reno area and encounter a series of bad luck tragedies. The novel is one of Vlautin’s bleak, desperate character studies writ large.

Vlautin claims that writing longer fiction is healthier than writing songs. “When I’m writing fiction, I usually eat better and go running, I try not to drink, and I go to sleep earlier. It’s like going to school; you have to have get up every day and put in the hours. Writing songs is harder. I usually do my best hungover, when I’m more of a wreck.”

Vlautin’s downbeat tales about bad-news characters might seem to cast Reno as Springsteen’s proverbial “town full of losers” (and Vlautin, by association, the guy that’s “pulling out of here to win”). But it’s clear that even when he’s exploring its darkest, dingiest, diviest places, Vlautin holds a deep affection for his hometown. “I left Reno for just one reason,” he says. “To get in a band where people might actually show up and have a decent time.” He tried for years to get something going in Reno. After all, he had good friends here, a cheap place to live. But he didn’t want to quit playing, either. “So finally, a girl I knew was moving to Portland, and I went along with her,” he says. “I don’t think I’d have ever done it on my own. Getting me to leave was like pulling teeth. …. Reno has the best bars, and it’s near the desert. It has the Halfway Club and the mess at the Coney Island and the greatest, weirdest old-man bars in the world.

“I always wanted to buy a place in Reno,” he continues, seeming to slip into one of his own characters. “You know, come back a home owner! Maybe not like the bum I was. But hell, the prices in Reno just kept going up. I tried to get a place there about five years ago, but in the end I just couldn’t get the loan. So now, I just rent a room at the Fitzgerald or the Gold Dust West and stay for a week or two and try to work on stories and spend my days there walking around thinking about what place I’m gonna buy when I get some money.”