Artist Willy Vlautin: Thrilled (and lucky) to be back in town

Willy Vlautin is glad to be returning to Ireland for Ballincollig Winter Music Festival. First, The Delines just had to get over a major accident for their singer, writes Ed Power.

Artist Willy Vlautin: Thrilled (and lucky) to be back in town

Willy Vlautin is glad to be returning to Ireland for Ballincollig Winter Music Festival. First, The Delines just had to get over a major accident for their singer, writes Ed Power

Willy Vlautin’s life has the trajectory of a great American novel.

A graduate of the seedy drinking dens of Reno, Nevada, he started his career penning gritty country songs.

But then he transferred his skills to the printed word and become an acclaimed writer, with several of his books – including the 2010 bestseller Lean On Pete – adapted for the screen.

And yet he could never shake the bug of live performance.

So when his group, Richmond Fontaine, decided to call it quits, he was already thinking about his next project: the steel-pedal “retro country band” The Delines. Disaster struck, however, as Delines lead singer Amy Boone was seriously injured in a freak car accident.

“She was in a parking lot when a lady got her foot stuck on the gas pedal and ran her into a building,” says Vlautin.

“She broke both legs, had nine major surgeries. She was pretty much laid up for over a year. She came in to do a session and we had to help her get in and out of the car. It’s been rough on her.”

Happily Boone is fighting fit once more and looking forward to leading The Delines when they arrive Ireland for shows that include a gig at Ballincollig Winter Music festival next week.

They will be playing songs from their haunting second record, The Imperial , delayed for more than 18 months while their front woman recuperated.

Willy Vlautin on stage.
Willy Vlautin on stage.

Vlautin is arguably more acclaimed nowadays as a novelist than musician and could doubtless make a perfectly good living from his books. But then how would he scratch that rock’ n roll itch?

“I love writing songs and I love the camaraderie,” he says. “I never get tired of the same old conversations guys in bands have.

"It’s like having a family except you’re all working together instead of beating one another up.”

He has lived for the past several decades in Portland, Oregon. Yet he is very much a creature of Nevada and in particular Reno which, by his telling, feels like a Las Vegas with the twilight sketchiness dialled up.

“The town is built on gambling and drinking,” he says. “I was definitely born in the right city. I fell in love with the darker side when I was 16, 17.

"It’s a gambling town so there was always a lot of money in it. There is a definitely seedier side that I was drawn to.”

Born into a working class family, it never occurred to Vlautin that he could make a living from writing.

That isn’t what people from his background did. 

“You held down the same job for 30 years. I never thought I had any right to be a writer.”

He gravitated to rock’ n roll instead. He was obsessed with music – to the point where he felt compelled, against his better instincts to go on stage.

“I joined a band when I was 13 and painfully shy," he says.

“I could barely to go school I was so shy. But I felt I had to be in a band because I love records so much. 

"I was so nervous – I hated being in front of people. But I wanted to be part of it.”

As the leader of Richmond Fontaine, he became a regular visitor to Ireland.

Indeed, it was on their first visit, to play the Kilkenny Rhythm and Roots Festival many years ago, that they realised they had arrived as a musicians.

Which is why he is honoured to return with The Delines and to start their European tour here.

“We were in our mid thirties and hadn’t even had passports at that point. For guys like us to come to Ireland after playing so long in bands and not getting much money for it was incredible.

"Our guitarist said that his mom was finally proud of him when he went to Ireland. To get to see parts of the world you otherwise wouldn’t— it was a really lucky break.”

The Delines play Ballincollig Winter Music Festival January 23, Roisin Dubh Galway January 24 and Liberty Theatre Dublin January 25.

The Imperial is out now.

Ballincollig Winter Music Festival runs Jan 23-27 at the White Horse. The lineup includes Donal Lunny, Cathy Davey, Andy Irvine, and Jerry Douglas

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