The Delines on Finding Rock ‘n’ Roll Fiction in Working-Class America

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The Delines on Finding Rock ‘n’ Roll Fiction in Working-Class America

If you drive from Tallahassee to Houston, the most efficient route is Interstate 10. But the most interesting drive is on the local highways (90, 82, 73) that hug the coast and take you through a string of blue-collar beach towns stranded like islands amid the sugarcane fields and crawfish ponds. The air is thicker down there, swollen not only by salt and humidity, but also by the saxophone-drenched swamp music pouring out of the jukeboxes.

This is the setting for the magnificent new album by The Delines, The Sea Drift, named after one of those run-down motels along Route 82. The album’s first two lines are, “Little Earl is driving down the Gulf Coast / Sitting on a pillow so he can see the road.” Like the opening of a Raymond Carver short story, this gets us asking questions: “Who is Little Earl, and why does he need a pillow to see over the steering wheel?” Why does the passenger seat hold three frozen pizzas, two cigarette lighters and a 12-pack of beer?

The answer comes in the second stanza: “Little Earl’s brother is bleeding in the backseat.” The owner of the convenience store where the siblings grabbed the beer and pizza had a gun. Now they’re driving the car they “borrowed” from their uncle past “the houses on stilts on Holly Beach,” looking for a hospital without a map or a clue. Soon the horns and organs are rising through the third verse like the panic in Earl’s throat.

What’s remarkable about this song and the album that follows is this: The Delines live up in Portland, Oregon, far from Holly Beach, Louisiana. Willy Vlautin, the band’s songwriter and guitarist, grew up in Reno before moving to Portland, and the band’s singer, Amy Boone, grew up near Albany, Santa Fe and Austin. But in Holly Beach, a town demolished again and again by hurricanes, only to rebound, they have found the perfect locale for their songs about the precariousness of life in 21st-century America. And the perfect soundtrack, for the Gulf Coast’s country-soul coats these patient story songs like the humidity on its tank-top-clad characters.

“Willy and I both come from working-class backgrounds,” Boone says. “These characters are people we grew up with, worked with and went to school with. He and I talk a lot about our childhoods, and they’re a lot the same even though they’re geographically distant. Reno, upstate New York and Holly Beach are a lot the same; they have the same pop culture, the same kind of working-class families with the same kind of child raising. There were crazy times in our childhoods, things we maybe shouldn’t have been exposed to, but we found out about the world for ourselves.”

“I lived with my single mom and my brother until my mom’s boyfriend moved in when I was 12,” adds Vlautin. “When I was 15, 16, I started realizing how many grifters and lost men were living in Reno. I was scared of them and attracted to them at the same time. I drank that romantic Kool Aid that that was a cool way to live—and I sort of believed I was headed that way anyway. I was reading a lot of John Steinbeck and listening to Springsteen, Tom Waits and Willie Nelson.”

The Delines grew out of two rocking, Americana bands that had reached the end of the line around 2012. Vlautin and drummer Sean Oldham had been in the Portland band Richmond Fontaine, which had released 14 albums since 1996. Boone and her sister Deborah Kelly were co-leaders of the Austin band The Damnations, which released three albums over the same period.

The break-ups were all amicable, but Vlautin and Boone were approaching 50, and they wanted to make some music that took its time to tell a story and to savor the atmosphere. As role models, they looked to their favorite Gulf Coast songwriters: Louisiana’s Tony Joe White, Mississippi’s Bobbie Gentry and Texas’s Gatemouth Brown. The grooves are relaxed but seductive, the harmonies steamy, and the stories too true to be cheerful. Holding it all together are the arrangements of The Delines’ keyboardist-trumpeter Cory Gray.

“It feels easy on my ears to not be in a loud, crazy band,” admits Boone. “It seems more age-appropriate, right for where we are in our lives. Our music is described as romantic, but there’s this dark underbelly. It’s a little confusing how the topics and the music fit together, but it comes out feeling beautifully tragic. That’s thanks to Cory; he’s a cornucopia of influences. Just calling them sad songs is not giving them enough credit. There’s a lot more going on. These are people in tough spots trying to work it out. That doesn’t mean they don’t get out of it.”

“Amy has that Gulf Coast feel to her singing,” Vlautin points out, “and she was really interested in that vibe for this record. I was, too. She and I could listen to Tony Joe’s ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ three hours a day. She said, ‘Why don’t you write me a ‘Rainy Night in Georgia?’ It was fun for me to try to write something with that kind of groove and that kind of feel. Some of the songs I bring don’t work for her; they’re too raw. So I try to write some romantic tunes for her, which is great, because my voice could never pull them off. For every romantic tune I write for her, I get a ‘Little Earl.’”

One such romantic song is “Past the Shadows,” whose melody seems to swoon before perking up again at the end of each line. As Boone stretches out her syllables over Vlautin’s clipped guitar and Gray’s sumptuous horns, she describes a room at the Sea Drift Motel, where the drapes are drawn, the lights are off and “all you can see is you and me in the darkness … That’s when I feel safe.”

But for most of the songs, Vlautin has written a female character who’s trapped in a bad relationship and is trying to find a safe off-ramp. In “Drowning in Plain Sight,” it’s a woman who’s willing to let her husband’s beer and her kids’ ice cream get warm, because she needs some time to herself. So she keeps driving past the marinas outside of town, disappearing into the haze of lazy horns.

In “All Along the Ride,” she’s in the passenger seat, next to her man, suffocating in a silence as haunting as the pauses between Gray’s piano chords, as final as the Primadonna Club when it closed for good. She’d like to pretend it doesn’t hurt; she “could lie and say I’d get a thicker skin, but I’ve been trying my whole life to get a thicker skin.”

In “This Ain’t No Getaway,” she’s coming back to the apartment at six in the morning to get the boxes of her belongings, bracing herself against her man’s glare and his loaded .38 on the TV set. Over the push-and-pull ballad groove and the reverb-heavy guitar chords, she sings, “My sister warned me not to come, but I ain’t giving anything else away.”

“She’s terrified of this guy,” Vlautin says of the latter character, “but she’s tired of being terrified. She doesn’t care if the cops come or if he kills her. I’ve never been a woman in that situation, but I’ve been in situations where I’ve been really scared like that. And I’ve learned that sometimes you have to stand your ground if you’re going to retain who you are. It’s a good song for Amy to sing, because this woman is really tough, and she decides, ‘I’m not going to spend my life being scared.’”

Vlautin is speaking from his North Portland office, where he works on writing his novels as well as his songs. His published five novels so far, and two of them have been turned into movies, most notably 2017’s Lean on Pete, starring Charlie Plummer, Amy Seimetz, Steve Buscemi, Steve Zahn and Chloe Sevigny. Like his songs, Vlautin’s fiction centers on working-class characters caught in difficult circumstances, not entirely of their own making.

From his office window, he reports, he can see a bar and a clump of guys on the sidewalk, taking a cigarette break from drinking. When Vlautin was a teenager in Reno, he got tired of his druggie friends and started hanging out in old men’s bars like this one.

“During the summer,” he remembers, “I’d work with a lot of vagrant guys who had already failed in life, and I felt maybe I was headed in the same direction. Why not jump into it right away? Like getting a tooth pulled, you want to get it over with. But then you’re sitting in a bar next to a guy who’s 50, and you realize you don’t want to end up that way. What saved me was I loved records so much that I wanted really bad to be in a band. I got so much comfort from books and records as a kid that I wanted to be a part of that.”

His older brother John, who wrote folk songs, said, “You’re so sad, you should write songs.” The younger brother started at age 11 and never stopped, even though he wasn’t happy with anything he wrote till he turned 27. He started writing novels at 17, though he didn’t publish one until he was 39. He kept at it, however, and finally realized he had to get out of Reno if was ever going to find an audience. He tried Denver but wound up in Portland before he was 30. He spent a year there loading trucks before he formed Richmond Fontaine.

The band didn’t make much sense geographically. They were based in Oregon, but sounded like such Southwest bands as Rank & File or The Blasters. But they never found much popularity in any corner of North America; instead, they became very popular in England and then northern Europe.

Meanwhile, Boone and her sister Deborah Kelly (two years older, she uses their mom’s maiden name while Boone uses her mom’s married name) had moved from rural New York State to New Mexico and after high school to Austin. With drummer Keith Langford (later of The Gourds) and guitarist Rob Bernard (later Kelly’s husband), they formed the jangly, country-rock band The Damnations. Their debut studio album, 1998’s Half Mad Moon, was re-released by a major label, Sire.

When The Damnations opened for Richmond Fontaine on a West Coast tour, the two groups bonded. Vlautin asked Kelly to sing a duet with him on the title track from the 2003 album Post to Wire. In 2011, he asked her to join Richmond Fontaine for a European tour, but she had just become pregnant, so she couldn’t go. So she recommended that her sister take her place. And when Vlautin heard Boone singing a piano ballad at a radio station one day, he realized she had a voice that he could write for.

“As you get older,” he says, “you have to chase dreams like this; you can’t put them off till the right time. So I went home and wrote seven songs for Amy, plus a long letter on why she should waste her time with me. I told her I didn’t want to do a rock band; I didn’t want to lean on the ‘boom-de-chick-de boom.’ I wanted to do a ballad band with story songs. She liked three of the songs right off the bat, so she came up to Portland to rehearse, and we recorded the first Delines album, Colfax.”

“I still have the letter,” Boone adds. “I was surprised, but I was really excited. I felt incredibly insecure. I had never thought of myself as a singer; I was a singer as a default, because who else was going to sing the songs I was writing? But Willy’s songs were so good, I didn’t want to mess them up. You can mess up your own songs, but you don’t want to mess up someone else’s.”

Jenny Conlee played keyboards on Colfax, but when it came time to tour, she had to return to her regular job with Portland’s Decemberists. She was replaced by Gray, whose responsibilities have grown to the point where he composed two instrumentals for the new album, mixing Miles Davis trumpet with Brian Wilson keyboards. Drummer Oldham and bassist Freddy Trujillo fill out the lineup.

Gray’s contributions to the second studio album, 2019’s The Imperial, hinted at the Gulf Coast sound of this year’s The Sea Drift. The completion of The Imperial was delayed when a car hit Boone when she was walking down a sidewalk, leading to multiple years of recovery. The completion of The Sea Drift was delayed by the pandemic.

But now it’s here, and it demonstrates the value of breaking up the phrase “singer/songwriter” into its two halves. Just as Robbie Robertson wrote lyrics for Levon Helm, just as Robert Hunter did the same for Jerry Garcia, so has Vlautin penned his best work for Boone. No longer hemmed in by the limitations of his own voice, Vlautin can range wider both in pitch and psychology. With more distance from his protagonists, he can bring a new perspective to his material.

“I was never that great a frontman,” he admits. “By stepping back and letting Amy do it, that took the handcuffs off me as a songwriter, took the blinders off. It’s really fun to write these tunes thinking about her singing them. Both her voice and her personality are the same: really sweet but world-weary, too, and she’s really smart, and all of that comes through in her voice.”

“Because he’s a novelist,” Boone adds, “his songs unfold in short-story form. They don’t always end, sometimes you just get a portion of a story. So I feel like I’m a storyteller as much as a singer. I think it’s interesting to sing about people at the margins of society. I like diving into the characters and bringing them to life, not by any vocal calisthenics, but by the way I deliver the songs.”