This is a piece I wrote as a guest blogger for PRX Radio Show ‘In Search of a Song’ with Jason Wilbur.
This spotlight on Willy Vlautin made me realize how different someones perspective on genre tags can really be. We all use them, and we often can base a decision on whether or not to listen to a band on them. So, when I learn that this weeks guest may play ”alt country”, I immediately start thinking about someone like Ryan Adams. I am predisposed to assume; this is what my alt country sounds like.
However, that’s really not the case for anyone but me; Ryan Adams just happens to be my ambassador. We all read the same tags, but our ideas about what such a genre can mean, or sound like, are vastly different. So if my idea of alt country is Ryan Adams, and your idea of alt country is say, Graham Parsons, and Uncle Tupelo and Lucero sit somewhere in between the two, they ought shove down and make a seat for Willy Vlautin. I don’t want to turn my weekly diatribe into a “if you like, then you’ll like” elevator pitch; but finding room between the slightly unkempt nature of Whiskeytown and the storytelling of Uncle Tupelo for Willy Vlautin is appropriate.
Willy fronts the band Richmond Fontaine, and their sound is clearly rooted in the No Depression version of alt country; a sound that is the genesis of the genre, and one that has remained present, if not as prevalent as it once was. While not nearly as popular as it has been, Willy speaks to the sound of his band as being the sound he always wanted, and will probably always do. I can appreciate it, if nothing else; there’s something to take away from a writer who sticks to what he knows and loves, as opposed to making even a veiled attempt at writing something that might be a play for some sort of market share or press. Willy doesn’t seem interested in the idea of breaking his band or becoming some sort of celebrity. He seems to be viciously content writing plaintive alternative country songs. Not something you see every day.
I enjoyed listening to Vlautin recall moments after rehearsal where he tried to assure the guys in his band that he will show up next time with some fast songs. Of the 7 or 8 musical selections host Jason Wilber spins in this episode, none even teeter anywhere near the same neighborhood as fast. Willy makes it clear that the fast songs really never came, and he is a man who loves the ballad. But, to me, the ballad is what makes alternative country interesting. I always felt cheated by the sides of the genre that too heavily lean into punk from the south territory; if I wanted punk, i’d listen to punk, you know? But a ballad defies genre; we are hardwired to feel something.
I always heard alt country was where punk rock dudes went to die. So, with that being said, Willy reminds us all that he is a punk kid at heart. Not an unfamiliar past within the sect of men who populate this genre, but it does beg the question; what makes these writers prefer to spend their twilight years more interested in dirt roads, apologies they never said and old boxes of photographs than PBR, angst and power chords? We learn that for Willy, the music is an extension of his real passion, which is writing in general. He has authored a trio of critically acclaimed novels, and knowing this, even without having an opportunity to read the novels, helps me better understand the kind of writing Willy does within his band. If you write novels about characters, that stroke of your brush is bound to make it into your songs.