Sweet Relief

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine.

Published January 14, 1998 6:32PM (EST)

Over the last decade, Victoria Williams has overcome problematic dealings with record labels, the dissolution of her first marriage and a chronic illness (multiple sclerosis) to put out four ambitious if somewhat sporadic albums. Her latest release, "Musings of a Creekdipper" (Atlantic), comes nearly four years after the rootsy, electric "Loose." Recorded near the Joshua Tree, Calif., home Williams shares with husband Mark Olson, "Musings" is a gentler, jazzier affair than its predecessor. Gone are her manic guitar solos, replaced by delicate piano arpeggios, swooping jazz bass lines and swells of orchestral timpani.

The record came together a bit differently than Williams had expected; just as the recording was set to begin, her MS, which can flare up at any time, made playing extremely difficult.
"When I started making this record, my hands were really numb and not functioning very well," she explained during a recent visit to New York, where she performed at the "Rolling Stone's Women in Rock" book party. "I'd had health problems during the last year. I'd finally gotten better and had hired everybody, and then I started getting weird again. I thought, 'Should I cancel this?' But you never know when it's going to come back, so you have to go forward."

And go forward she did. Williams began playing in a number of open tunings, which allowed her to form bar chords with one finger on guitar and banjo, leaving some of the trickier parts to her merry band of cohorts.

"To be handed a bit of a disability is ... interesting," Williams reflects. "You find ways to get around it; it opens up doors you might never have come to. And I had such incredible players on ["Musings"] that it kind of made up for my problems. Maybe it even became a better record because of it."

From the outset of her career, Williams has worked with remarkable players, surrounding herself with some of the most talented, uncompromising musicians in the business. Her more recent records have the feel of a house party -- back porch jams by a loose collective of like-minded pals. "Loose" featured members of R.E.M., Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks; "Musings" is graced by Wendy Malvolin and Lisa Coleman (formerly with Prince), Buddy Miller (guitarist for Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle) and his wife, Julie, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico and Giant Sand and ace session steel guitarist Greg Leize (Matthew Sweet, Rosie Flores), among others.

Williams has always sought, perhaps unconsciously, to re-create the "good vibe" scene of Shreveport, La., where she first learned to make songs -- to communicate the notions in her head, forthright and fanciful alike, through music. While in high school, Williams swapped her first instrument, the piano, for a guitar, "because you can't carry a piano around with you," she explains. She was soon drawn into a circle of local musicians that included T-Bone Kelly and Paul Maines. "I'd go to this Lake Cliff bar, an old roadhouse outside of Shreveport that's not there anymore; I think Elvis played there a long time ago. Afterwards, we'd go out to someone's house and stay up all night long playing music. I'd call my mother, and she was so afraid of the roads at night, she'd say, 'Well, you stay till the morning.' We'd all go out and get coffee when the sun came up," she recalls. "Everyone was writing songs, so I figured I'd better write some, too." She later played rhythm guitar behind local blues legend Raymond Blakes. "It's kind of a blues oriented area, everything's funky or blues; I suppose that's where I learned rhythms," says Williams, who counts Mance Lipscome, Lightnin' Hopkins and the Rev. Gary Davis among her guitar heroes.

Williams left Shreveport in the early '80s to escape a bad relationship -- "it seemed the only way to get out of it," she says -- and followed a girlfriend to Southern California. She began singing in a gospel choir and became a street performer on Venice Beach. But it was at a "hoot night" at the Troubadour where she was spotted by a friend of Van Dyke Parks, who introduced Williams to the eccentric songwriter. "I didn't know who he was," she confesses, "then I listened to his record 'Song Cycles,' and loved it." Parks has since worked on string arrangements for two of Williams' records, and it was through him that she met Richard Thompson and Richard Greene, who played on her first demo, as well as a host of other music luminaries.

By the mid-'80s, Williams' professional and personal life were in full swing. She had met Peter Case, a founding member of seminal power pop groups the Plimsouls and the Nerves (who now has a career as a singer/songwriter), and the two were married at a gospel church in Los Angeles' Watts district. Rough Trade was set to record Williams, until then-Geffen A&R rep Teresa Ensenat heard her and brought her over to the major label instead. In 1987, Williams released "Happy Come Home" on Geffen. But even as Williams' music career was taking off, things began to unravel. The recording sessions for "Happy" were fraught with difficulties. Williams' faltering marriage to Case (the two later divorced) was so stressful that it caused her voice to take on a strangely high, "uncontrollable vibrato" during the recording.

Williams also found herself unhappy with the rigors of being on a major label. "I'd started out as an improviser, and all of a sudden I was being told I had to play the same songs over and over," she says. "By the time I'd finished touring for 'Happy Come Home,' I felt brain dead." The relationship with Geffen was ultimately dissolved and Williams took off for a European tour with her friends Giant Sand as their lead and rhythm guitarist. "It was really good for me to be back in the improvisational mode," she says. "Halfway through the tour I finally got a handle on what the songs were, what the chords were, what anything was."

In 1990, Williams released her second album, "Swing the Statue!" on Rough Trade, but the company went belly up shortly thereafter (the record was rereleased by Mammoth in 1994). It was in 1991, when she began touring with Neil Young, that she noticed something wrong with her health. When she tried to play guitar, her hands began "flopping around." She was diagnosed with MS in 1992. When the uninsured Williams had racked up more than $20,000 worth of unpaid medical bills, friends and fans within the music industry responded with benefit concerts and "Sweet Relief," a compilation album of artists performing her songs that featured, among others, Pearl Jam, Lucinda Williams, the Jayhawks and Lou Reed. In turn, Williams created a foundation to help other uninsured musicians with debilitating illnesses, which has since given more than $350,000 to those in need. "My dream for that fund is for musicians in every city to do one concert a year that they donate to 'Sweet Relief,'" she says. "Then they can feel like it's there for them if they need it. Musicians have to stick together, just like the plumbers union."

Williams is open in discussing her bouts with MS, which is not curable. "It's a teacher, this whole trip," she says. "I've learned to laugh at myself a lot, instead of hitting myself in the head so much over the malfunctioning of the mortal coil." It's nearly impossible not to mention MS, given the impact it has on her music. "Musings" is steeped in the calmness Williams has sought in Joshua Tree, avoiding the stress that aggravates her condition. "The changes I'm going through in my life are in the music, I'm sure," she says. Indeed, the theme of resting, even forcibly, comes up repeatedly on "Musings": "Learn to rest/soon we'll fly," she sings on "Grandpa in the Cornpatch."

"That song could be about a grandpa not wanting to grow old, or it could be someone struck down in the middle of their life," she explains. "It's hard to get a person to rest who's not inclined to rest. But then your body just won't go. We have to experience so much, and resting is part of it." In "Train Song (Demise of the Caboose)," Williams waits at a railroad crossing as a train passes by, only to be disappointed that the caboose that delighted her as a child has disappeared. "It's a complaining song," she says. "There's no more finality in this life, it's all rush-rush-rush with no payoff."

Her search for a stress-free life notwithstanding, Williams managed to get some touring done in 1997, in between sessions for "Musings." During her road trip, she hooked up with the Lilith Fair for 10 shows. I ask her if she feels it accomplished what it had set out to, and she replies emphatically. "It couldn't help but do that," she says. "I loved it -- women out together instead of being pitted against each other, which has been a problem in the past. I don't think it stems from the women, necessarily, but more from the industry itself. My very first development deal was on EMI, but they decided not to go with me because they already had Kate Bush, and I'm nothing like her. Now, you don't hear that kind of thing about men.

"The spirit of Lilith was really gentle and wonderful," Williams recalls. "It's like, 'Hey! I'm a soothing balm of Gilead,'" she laughs. Backing up Williams at Lilith were the Creekdippers, comprised of husband Mark Olson and friend Raz. Once half of the formidable songwriting team behind the Jayhawks, Olson released his own CD last year and has been selling it through mail order only (Emancipated Mule, P.O. Box 342, Joshua Tree, CA 92252). "The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers" features live recordings of Olson, Williams and Raz of the back porch variety, and has received rave reviews despite the fact that most avaricious music writers are incensed by actually having to pay for something. Though she is reluctant to speak for Olson, Williams admits, "Mark had had it with the business. He just wants to put out his music." I ask her if she finds it odd that her husband has completely opted out of the industry while she remains attached to a major label. "No," she says thoughtfully, "Mark made me realize that I don't have the energy to do everything myself right now. I might have to someday, though; you never know with the ups and downs of the music business."

Considering the ups and downs of Williams' career, it's amazing to hear her talk about how the music itself has helped to heal her spirit, if not her illness. "When I make a record, I hope it will be good for people," she says with absolute sincerity. "Once I was down in this Mexican neighborhood. There was music playing and it got into me, and I started dancing around. When I looked up, everyone was smiling, and I thought, 'Wow, people really like to see me happy.' I realized that rolling around in my own sordid sorrows is no good for other people. It's kind of selfish." Even when she's on the sidelines, Williams is still a channel through which music flows, bringing felicity to those around her.

By Meredith Ochs

Meredith Ochs is a writer in New York.

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