PORTLAND, Oregon — Sometimes, fate’s just a damned cruel thing. But when it nearly capsizes the career of an acclaimed band in the blink of an eye, the band’s only prudent choice is to hang in there until the ship is ready to sail again. That’s what The Delines did while supporting the recovery of lead singer Amy Boone, who underwent three years of treatment and rehab after both her legs were severely broken when she was hit by a car in Austin, Texas. What sustained their spirit, according to guitarist and songwriter Willy Vlautin, was knowing they already had most of their sophomore album, The Imperial, in the can.
Not quite three years after their momentum was so rudely interrupted, the band will finally release The Imperial on January 11th 2019 via Décor Records, picking up where they left off following their stellar 2014 debut, Colfax. Like that album, The Imperial features Damnations, TX co-founder Boone evoking a beat-up Dusty Springfield or a weary Rickie Lee Jones on 10 tracks penned by Vlautin, who is also lead singer/songwriter for Richmond Fontaine whom broke up in 2016 and an acclaimed novelist (two of his books have become major films).
Upon its release, Colfax earned the Delines plaudits from fans, critics and tastemakers like the Drive-by Truckers’ Patterson Hood, who picked them as 2014’s best new band in No Depression. Uncut gave Colfax nine out of 10 stars, praising its “widescreen romanticism” and proclaiming it “the richest collection of songs Vlautin has written.” Colfax wound up on a dozen yearend top-10 lists and snagged a couple of album-of-the-year accolades — a remarkable feat for a band that had never played live and had rehearsed for only a week before recording.
“Colfax was an experiment,” Vlautin says. “The Imperial is the result of touring, solidifying the lineup and months of rehearsal.”
By the time they began recording it in Portland with producer John Morgan Askew, they had successfully toured Europe and Australia, including sold-out dates in the U.K. and Ireland.
Unfortunately, Boone’s accident put a stop to everything. “We were all just devastated when Amy got hit,” Vlautin says. “I mean, she was just walking on a sidewalk in a parking lot, and the next thing you know …”
The next thing was nine surgeries, painful skin grafts and learning to walk again (she now uses a cane crafted by a bandmate). It took two years before she was able to fly from Austin to Portland to finish the album.
“I was still pretty messed up from getting hit,” Boone recalls. “The outside world seemed like one big, dangerous obstacle course. Every step of the way I had to talk myself down from panic attacks. I remember when Willy and [drummer] Sean Oldham picked me up, I suggested I'd be better off in the back seat with a blindfold and a cigarette.”
Not that anyone could tell from listening to the album. If anything, it serves as a testament to the band’s collective resolve — and talent. Not to mention Vlautin’s songwriting, which vividly paints worlds both romantic and lonely, desperate and hopeful. On “Holly the Hustle,” he relates the harrowing tale of a girl who grows up to join the lowdown life. In the horn-drenched “Where Are You Sonny?” a woman searches for her missing boyfriend. The title song tells the story of a long-split couple who meet again years later, following his release from prison.
Equally adept at sounding broken-hearted and optimistic, weary and resilient, Boone conveys these characters in a voice that’s grittier than Bobbie Gentry’s and more lonesome than Sammi Smith’s, and steeped in the soul-ballad tradition. It’s the voice Vlautin fell in love with when he first heard it during a tour Richmond Fontaine did with Damnations, TX, the band Boone had formed with her sister, Deborah Kelly.
“There wasn’t a night that I didn’t sit by the stage and listen to them sing,” he recalls. “I’ve always loved their voices. It started when I wrote a duet called ‘Post to Wire’ for one of them to sing with me. I had no confidence back then, so I decided the first sister I started talking to, I’d ask to sing the song. It happened to be Deborah.”
She also sang on the Richmond Fontaine album The High Country, and was going to tour with the band, but backed out when she became pregnant. Boone wound up filling in.
“On the road, I’d listen to her warm up and I started dreaming about being in a band where she sang all the tunes,” Vlautin explains. “That’s how the Delines started — with me wanting to hide in the back and listen to Amy sing.”
He spent the next year writing those tunes. Then, he says, “I wrote her a sorta thesis on why she should join up with me. Luckily, she said yes.” Then he tapped RF drummer Oldham. “He’s so damn cool and good,” Vlautin says, “it brought the idea of the Delines to life.”
Portland’s Freddy Trujillo signed on to play bass. The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee contributed keyboards, but because of her other commitments, multi-instrumentalist Cory Gray stepped in to round out the band’s cinematic, late-night country-soul sound with keyboard and trumpet. “He’s been our ace in the hole ever since,” says Vlautin. “So much of The Imperial is influenced and inspired by him.”
To say they’re looking forward to sharing it with the world is a bit of an understatement. “It’s been a slow, hard recovery for Amy,” Vlautin notes. “It’s amazing how tough she is. It took us a long time, but The Imperial is finally done and the Delines get to be a band again.”