Lucinda Williams’ music is something of a Baedeker’s guide to the South. It’s not just that the singer-songwriter, born in Lake Charles, La., shows her roots by bending the region’s musical styles into a magnetic sound all her own. She’s also a master of evoking the character of a place with the telling, everyday detail: “Cotton fields stretching miles and miles/Hank’s voice on the radio.” When she adds in the names of the cities she has known, as she does in song after song, even those who have never traveled below the Mason-Dixon line end up feeling they know Lafayette, Memphis and New Orleans.
Her fifth and most recent album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” winner of a Grammy for best contemporary folk album in 1998, is as geographic as anything she’s done. Enough cities are listed here to rival a road atlas of the South, yet the emotional journeys Williams describes resonate with people everywhere. The songs range in mood from regretful to defiant to nostalgic. But they share a conviction, or at least a flickering hope, that relief — whether from a broken heart in “Joy” or from stifling domesticity in the title track — is just an address change away. In “Jackson,” recovery from a breakup is measured in miles: “Once I get to Baton Rouge, I won’t cry a tear for you.” The mournful “Greenville” urges a washed-up drunk to leave town. And a man finds heaven on earth in “Lake Charles.”
For all the implied locomotion, “Car Wheels” sure moved slowly from recording studio to CD store: Six years passed between this album and her previous one, “Sweet Old World.” As impatient fans wondered when they’d hear from her again, Williams grappled with a series of challenges. First, Chameleon, her label for “Sweet Old World,” went under. She was then on the American label until it, too, dissolved and she moved to Mercury. There were also delays in the studio. Williams recorded “Car Wheels” from scratch twice and worked with producers in Nashville, New Orleans and Los Angeles before achieving the sound she wanted. (Ironically, she was searching for a “less produced” feel.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the painstaking process alienated some of her collaborators, including her longtime guitarist, Gurf Morlix, who had co-produced “Sweet Old World.” Alt-country icon Steve Earle, who plays guitar on a few tracks and whose company, twangtrust, is listed as a co-producer on the final product, described the experience as “the least amount of fun I’ve had working on a record.”
Earle is neither the first nor the last to question Williams’ unwillingness to settle for “good enough.” The songwriter fought her way out of a contract with RCA in 1990 when the company wanted to release what she considered a substandard recording. Refusing to compromise, she moved to the much smaller Chameleon label, where she had more artistic control. And during the long wait for “Car Wheels, ” the press often portrayed her as a nutty perfectionist. Today, Williams has a pat response for those who second-guess her methods: “You can’t praise the work and criticize the process,” she has said in more than one interview.
Certainly the ends justify the means in the case of “Car Wheels,” her breakout album. Williams’ earlier work consistently won raves from critics and fellow musicians but was just as consistently overlooked by disc jockeys and the public. “Lucinda Williams should be at the very center of country music. She is an example of the best of what country at least says it is,” Emmylou Harris said in 1995. “But, for some reason, she’s completely out of the loop. And I feel strongly that that’s country music’s loss.” Williams won a Grammy in 1992 for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s version of her song “Passionate Kisses.” And Patty Loveless took “The Night’s Too Long” into the top 20 in 1990. But Williams didn’t really get her due until “Car Wheels,” which made best-of-the-year lists around the country (and won the prestigious Village Voice critics poll) in 1998 and went gold last summer (meaning 500,000 copies had been shipped) and had sold more than 420,000 copies by the end of December.
The album’s success might owe something to the current music scene, which is more hospitable to genre-bending than it was when Williams first started out over two decades ago. For years, her brilliant blend of blues, country, folk and rock slipped through the cracks in the music industry. Record execs just didn’t know how to categorize her. In the late ’80s, she made a demo tape for CBS Records in Los Angeles. They said it was “too country” for them and sent it to CBS Nashville, where — guess what? — it was judged “too rock ‘n’ roll.”
Or it could simply be that America was finally ready for a literary songwriter of Williams’ caliber. She lingers on traditional country motifs — heartbreak, honky-tonking, homesickness — but gives them a modern twist that transcends geographic and genre borders. And despite the distilled pain and longing that darken her lyrics, there is never a sense of defeat. Whether addressing the suicide of a friend in “Sweet Old World” or a long-gone lover in “Still I Long For Your Kiss,” Williams makes clear that she retains a spark of hope and will battle on.
Even when singing the blues, she is an optimist. She described the songs on her first album, “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” a 1979 collection of covers of blues and Cajun classics, as “blues as metaphor” or “blues as a sort of two-way mirror which, regardless of the hardships reflected, also reveals something better on the other side,” according to John Morthland’s liner notes.
Williams’ father, poet and literature professor Miller Williams, clearly influenced her craft. “He’s been my mentor,” she told the Journal of Country Music in 1996. “Instead of going to college and taking creative writing, I learned by writing, by trial and error, and by showing [my father] what I was working on and listening to his criticism.” Like the best poetry, her songs waste no words and vividly describe a specific scene that reveals a universal feeling or theme. In “The Night’s Too Long,” for example, an idealistic waitress named Sylvia bets that moving to the city will bring her closer to what she wants: “So she saved her tips
and overtime/And bought an old rusty car/She sold most everything she had/To make a brand new start.”
And her father influenced her music in other ways. As the Williams family followed Miller’s career and restlessness to various Southern university towns, “Cindy” got to know the places that would later figure prominently in her songs. And the music she heard as she was growing up — Miller was a devoted Hank Williams fan (the family is not related), while her mother leaned more toward Joan Baez — had a lasting impact on her sensibility.
When Williams was 12, she picked up a guitar a friend had left at her house and tried to play. “The first songs I did were from John and Alan Lomax’s books of folk songs,” she told the Washington Post in 1989. “I literally sat down with those books and my folk records. I can’t read music, so I would listen, figure out the melody from the records and find the words in the books. That’s all I did; I had no other interests.” She eventually took guitar lessons, but only learned specific songs to build a repertoire; she never has learned to read music.
Bukka White, Robert Johnson, Neil Young and Peter, Paul and Mary were some of her early favorites. But it was Bob Dylan who really grabbed her. “Highway 61 Revisited” came out in 1965, the year she started playing guitar, and, as she told the Journal of Country Music, “That was it for me. I had somehow found the combination, the link of heavy, intense, brave lyrics — he’d obviously listened to a lot of blues — great melodies, and a voice that wasn’t perfect.”
She could have been describing her own music. Williams’ voice is unforgettably, gorgeously “flawed.” It twangs, purrs, quavers and cracks, conveying strength and vulnerability, release and dammed-up emotion at the same time. It has a raw casualness that, given Williams’ attention to detail, can only be the result of study and practice. “I’ve always had an awareness of my voice being distinct,” she said in the JCM. “A lot of the time I feel kind of limited vocally. I can hear it in my head, but I can’t pull it off. I’m restricted because of my range. I just don’t have that kind of voice, that kind of range — you know, like even Emmy has, or like Joni Mitchell. When I first started out those were the voices I wanted to sound like. Eventually, though, you have to come to terms with your limitations, which, in turn, become your trademark.”
Williams had just started playing in bars in New Orleans — doing covers of Dylan, Baez and Joni Mitchell as well as her own songs — when her father got a teaching job in Mexico City and the family moved south of the border. Some of her father’s friends at the State Department suggested that Williams and Clark Jones, a family friend, perform concerts at Mexican schools as a goodwill gesture. “We went to high schools, colleges. It was a little scary,” she told the JCM. “We were famous American folk singers as far as they were concerned. They made these big posters and would always misspell his name: ‘Clarck Jones and Cindy Williams!’ Like it was Peter, Paul and Mary to them.” She wasn’t a famous American folk singer — yet.
Back in the U.S., she displayed her father’s rambling tendencies and split
her time between the music scenes in Austin and Houston for about 10 years. She later drifted through Los
Angeles and New York before settling in Nashville, where she lives today
with her boyfriend of about four years, bassist Richard Price. Until meeting
Price, Williams had a rocky love life (as reflected in her many songs of
breakups and loneliness), including a short-lived marriage in the mid-1980s
to drummer Greg Sowders. “Richard’s the only man I’ve ever been involved
with who wasn’t threatened by my success,” Williams told Us magazine last
In 1980 she cut her first album of original work, “Happy Woman Blues,” which seamlessly mixes musical traditions. With an economy of words, she conjures images and moods that take the listener to Dixie. The raucous “Lafayette” is an anthem for a town where “we danced all night long to a sweet Cajun song/Drinkin’ and jivin’ till dawn.” “Maria” is a profile of a woman who was “born to roam.” And there’s a foot-tapping, carefree version of “I Lost It,” which appears in a slower form on “Car Wheels.”
It was her next album, however, that put Williams on the map. After CBS turned her down, she took her demo tape to the British indie punk label Rough Trade, which immediately signed her. “Lucinda Williams” came out in 1988. Dobros and mandolins mix with electric and acoustic guitars. Romance gets a variety of treatments in these songs, from the irrepressible “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” to the slightly paranoid “Changed the Locks” to the self-preserving “The Side of the Road.” Now available as a reissue from Koch, the album was highly acclaimed and sold close to 100,000 copies — a small coup for an independent label.
“Sweet Old World,” released on Chameleon in 1992, was not the breakout album fans were expecting after the eponymous album. It can seem too traditionally folky for the eclectic Williams. As always, though, the songs are meticulously written. “Pineola” is a picture of stunned grief inspired by the suicide of her friend poet Frank Stanford. The title track is also about suicide: “See what you lost when you left this world,” Williams croons. And she covers “Which Will” by Nick Drake, the British folk singer who killed himself in 1974.
Fans got what they wanted with “Car Wheels,” though. And the six long years they had to wait only sweetened the reward. Williams has always focused on the art, not commercial success — how many musicians fight to get out of their major-label contracts? Still, she must be pleased with her new popularity. For one thing, it amounts to a big “I told you so” — she has been doing things her way all along and now it has paid off. And it’s unlikely anyone will try to force her to compromise again.
That’s good news for Williams fans. Few musicians today produce songs that are so closely linked — in form and content — to the South. Certainly none do so with as much originality, eclecticism and literary artistry as Williams. “I like to pay homage, it’s like a respect thing almost, like being proud of where you’re from and proud of your roots,” she said in an interview this year with Addicted to Noise. “I think everybody should be proud of where they’re from.”