Playing brittle and evocative alt-country with lyrics that draw powerful and sometimes troubling portraits of life along the margins of the contemporary American West, Richmond Fontaine is the brainchild of singer, guitarist, and songwriter Willy Vlautin, who was born in Reno, Nevada. When Vlautin was in his early teens, his older brother moved to Los Angeles and became interested in the many roots-influenced bands in the city's punk rock scene. He began sending Willy tapes of bands such as the Blasters, Rank & File, and the Long Ryders, and Vlautin became enamored of their blend of punk energy and C&W twang. At 16, Vlautin formed his first band, but after several years he became disenchanted with the limited opportunities to play original music in Reno, and moved to Portland, Oregon in 1994. Not long after he relocated, Vlautin met bassist Dave Harding; discovering their shared enthusiasm for the Blasters, the Replacements, and Hüsker Dü, Vlautin and Harding decided to form a band, and recruited drummer Stuart Gaston to form the first lineup of Richmond Fontaine. After gigging locally, the band recorded their first album, Safety, for the local Cravedog Records label in 1996. Later that same year, the band bought the album back from Cravedog and signed to a larger independent label, Cavity Search Records, who reissued Safety that same year; lots of West Coast touring and a few trips to the East and Midwest followed. In 1997, the band recorded and released their second album, Miles From, and set out on another nationwide tour. By the time their third album, Lost Son, came out in 1999, Sean Oldham had replaced Gaston on drums, and pedal-steel guitarist Paul Brainard, who had played on several cuts on Miles From, had signed on as a full-time member of the band. A live EP, Whiskey, Painkillers & Speed, was released in 2001, and the following year the group completed work on their fourth album, Winnemucca, which arrived on the El Cortez label. Post to Wire emerged in 2004, with Fitzgerald and Obliteration by Time both appearing the next year. In 2006, Vlautin's first novel, a well-received, crime-haunted story about two brothers from Reno titled The Motel Life, was published by Faber & Faber. He continued both his writing and his songwriting, issuing Thirteen Cities and a companion EP of unreleased songs and remixes, $87 & a Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse the Longer I Go, in 2007. A full-length album recorded live at a 2005 show in Portland, Live at the Doug Fir Lounge was also released that year. The band's next LP, 2009's We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River, consisted of 14 songs written around and about the Pacific Northwest." Still with El Cortez, Postcard from Portland: Live at Dantes, and their tenth studio album, High Country, came out in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
A five-year gap preceded their 11th studio LP, which was revealed to be Richmond Fontaine's last. With Vlautin having established a parallel career as a novelist -- his fourth book, The Free, and a film version of The Motel Life arrived during the break between records -– and having parted ways with their label and with Harding (though the bassist did lend acoustic guitar to the album), the band brought in bass player Freddy Trujillo for a final outing. Also featuring guitar by frequent collaborator Dan Eccles and the keyboard skills of Jenny Conlee of the Decemberists, You Can't Go Back If There's Nothing to Go Back To was built around a loose narrative involving the exploits of two cowboy brothers. A melancholy goodbye from Vlautin "about paying the price for the way one's lived," was released by Fluff & Gravy Records in March 2016. ~ Mark Deming & Marcy Donelson