There's a tale behind the making of most albums that usually has nothing to do with the art of the songs. Except sometimes. Like when you learn that Jimmie Rodgers spent his last sessions spitting blood into a bucket between songs -- the work then sounds incredibly frail and brave.
Lucinda Williams didn't spit blood making her fifth album, but she might as well have. By some counts, it's four years late. Now, there are late records, and then there are those whose
slow incubation is made public in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. The article "Lucinda Williams Is in Pain" (Sept. 14, 1997) depicted her as a neurotic repeatedly rerecording songs that were first cut in Texas, recut in Nashville, then redone again in Los Angeles. A year ago, I spoke with Steve Earle, who produced the basic Nashville tracks with Williams. "She should have finished the fucking record and released it," he said. "Lucinda has a problem when it comes down to doing final vocals. That's where it always hangs up for her. Lou doesn't know how good she is. If stuff sits around long enough she second-guesses herself."
Finally, finally, finally, Lucinda Williams' new record is here. Was the
wait worth it? Yes. So is it a masterpiece? I'm not sure. On first listen, it's like
hearing Bob Dylan's "Planet Waves" for the first time. Probably "Car
Wheels on a Gravel Road" is only a great record.
Masterpiece or not, Williams' voice is absolutely unique. Her
regional accent transcends Southern mush-mouthedness into a kind of glorious
sophistication. She could be Bonnie Raitt's Louisiana-born half-sister.
Williams' own influences go from Bobbie Gentry -- "The first singer I ever heard
who I felt I really identified with," Williams says -- to Nico.
But the sound on "Car Wheels" is neither Billy Joe jumping off a bridge nor
"All Tomorrow's Parties." It has an openhearted, rootsy sound -- guitarists like
Earle, Buddy Miller and Charlie Sexton playing resonator and mando guitars
(whatever those are) as well as Dobro and slide. Williams' lyrics mostly
deal with love that's gone sour, gone south or gone on too long. Taken together,
the songs are a virtual travelogue of the South, visiting the cotton fields, broken-down shacks and juke joints of Macon, Lake Charles, Nacogdoches, Greenville, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and Vicksburg.
The opening cut, "Right in Time," is the most extraordinary song on the album. A
woman is swooning about her absent lover as she takes off her watch, earrings,
bracelet "and everything." Then she lays on her back and "moan[s] at the
ceiling/Oh my baby." Williams sings about auto-eroticism with unabashed sincerity, almost innocence. This is the song Williams was rerecording in L.A. at the beginning of the "Lucinda Williams Is in Pain" article, which described how she stopped the session to complain, "I don't know if I like how this last line sounds ... I just don't want to sound nasally and bright." But Williams wasn't being neurotic by interrupting the session. She wasn't
second-guessing herself, either. She was just working. That song was too sensitive to screw it up.
Something Earle said about the Nashville sessions seems ringingly true.
Williams, who won a Grammy for songwriting (Mary Chapin-Carpenter's rendition of her "Passionate Kisses" earned them both Grammys in 1994), doesn't know how good she is. "I only recently accepted myself as a writer," she was still saying just two months ago. "I feel like I just came up into [songwriting], this very organic thing. I didn't study creative writing. It was all very instinctual. I wrote for myself. It's only been in the last few years --" She broke off, then talked about how surprised she was that other artists want her to sing on their albums.
Perhaps the root to understanding Williams requires an appreciation of geographic instability. This is a woman who finds great joy in hotel rooms or sublets -- a symptom not uncommon for those who move around a lot as kids. Williams grew up in eight different Southern towns, as well as in Mexico City and Santiago, Chile. She and her friends are all quick to explain that this was because her father was a college professor, as if that profession is the equivalent of being a traveling salesman. I don't know or care why her dad moved so much. I just know that uprootedness can make one a late bloomer -- which could certainly explain Williams' career. She made two records, almost on a whim, in '79 and '80 on the Folkways label. Then she went through eight years of false starts and gigging. "I was living in Austin and Houston," she says. "Playing. I wasn't really trying to get a label. I didn't think in those terms. I didn't know the first thing about the music business. I was trying to make ends meet and keep my head above water and get gigs." Then in late '84, she went to L.A. to play some clubs and ended up staying. "That's when I started getting attention from record companies. But at that time they still didn't know what to do with me." She put out two records on now-defunct labels, one in '88 on Rough Trade (the self-titled "Lucinda Williams," which has just been re-released by Koch International,) and then another in '92 on Chameleon ("Sweet Old World").
Six years later, we have "Car Wheels." Hopefully we won't have to wait so long for the next
release. But don't count on Williams' doing anything predictable. It's like
she's dropped in from another planet. During dinner at a fancy Rockefeller Center Square bistro, the waiter -- a beefy 60-year-old Irish man -- obviously had trouble trying to figure the woman. That cracker accent. She's a tourist, right? But why is the guy taping what she says? She's no movie star. He saw a 40-ish woman with a high school shag, wearing makeup that was combination trailer-park and Parisian sophistication. Who is she? Finally, the waiter told her how "fresh" she looked. Williams hunched over her empty plate and responded with the utmost sincerity: "I still have this freshness. I'm always going to have this
freshness. I'll have it when I'm 80 years old."
God. One can only imagine how long Lucinda Williams will take to finish albums
40 years from now. Or how good they will sound.