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Lucinda Williams: Folk & Blues Artist

 

From Folk & Blues: An Encyclopedia, Lyndon & Irwin Stambler, St. Martin's Press, 2001

 

LUCINDA WILLIAMS

Singer-songwriter; guitarist.  Born Lake Charles, Louisiana, January 26, 1953. 

 

Lucinda Williams is in the top rank of American songwriters.  Her reputation has soared as some of the best performers in country, pop, and folk have made powerful covers other finest songs like  Passionate Kisses  (Mary-Chapin Carpenter), and  The Night's Too Long  (Patti Loveless).  Loveless had a top-10 country hit, and Carpenter her breakout hit, with  Passionate Kisses.  om Petty has recorded  Changed the Locks.  These songwriting successes raised Lucinda's stock in the music industry and transformed her from a cult act to a performer with broader appeal.  And thanks to Daniel Lanois's haunting production, Emmylou Harris has made a memorable cover of Sweet Old World,  one of the best songs written in recent years. 

 

Williams's musical influences are broad and diverse.  As she notes, "I've had tremendously eclectic musical influences.  My mother was a music major at Louisiana State University.  There was always sheet music lying around the house.  Mom's favorite was Judy Garland, and all those great musicals from the ' 50s, like South Pacific.  But I also loved the Beatles .   Go figure it!  Dad was a big country blues fan.  He also loved jazz.  So I heard a lot of Coltrane, Dinah Washington, and of course, Ray Charles.  I would hear Hank Williams one day and Wilson Pickett the next."

 

As for musical influences that determined her own subsequent development, she says, "1965 was a big year for me.  I took my first guitar lesson and discovered Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.  My dad taught college literature.  One day, one of his students brought over High way 61 [Revisited] and he was raving about it.  I was lucky because I was surrounded by college students, who turned me on to musicians like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell."

 

When she talks of the music that gripped her the most personally and deeply, she gravitates to the blues: "Some of my earliest memories are of the Delta blues.  I don't know what it was about it, but it got right to me and cut me to the bone.  A friend introduced me to Robert Johnson and I ate it up."

 

Williams didn't study music or theory.  "I just started playing what I loved," she says.  "I'd find a song that spoke to me and listen to it over and over.  It's kind of addictiveuntil I master it."

 

She broke into the music business in the 1970s.  "Then the music world seemed bigger and broader," she says.  "You could work a few days a week, playa few clubs, share a house with a few friends, and get by on $125 a week.  Now you have to work forty hours a week and squeeze the music into what's left over.  It's really hard for young kids starting out today."

 

She made her first recordings for Folkways, recording her first album, Ramblin' on My Mind (1978) in a single day.  She followed with Happy Woman Blues on Folkways in 1980.  "I had a few songs I'd written but 1 didn't use them," she recalls.  "Boy, I was so naive! I was a real purist.  I thought Folkways wouldn't want anything contemporary.  I thought they'd want nothing but the blues."

 

During the 1980s she was heavily influenced by the Pretenders, Talking Heads, ,Bruce Cockburn, Nick Drake, and Pentangle.  "I have an eclectic perspective on music," she says.  "I never thought in terms of having an image or limiting myself in terms of what 1 could or couldn't do."

 

Of all her albums, the 1992 Sweet Old World is her most masterful.  Its title song--a gentle rebuke to a lover or friend who chose suicide over "this sweet old world"--is filled with pathos and a clear-eyed look at the suffering and joy of human life. 

 

Lucinda has a spare singing style that tends to focus attention on the lyrics of her songs.  At first her earlier recordings, including Lucinda Williams (1988) and Passionate Kisses (1989) on Rough Trade, can seem nasal and whiny, but later recordings, like Sweet Old World, have fuller arrangements and higher sound quality, which gives her singing style sharpness and bite. 

 

On recordings like Sweet Old World, Gurf Morlix's guitar style provides the perfect instrumental accompaniment to Lucinda's singing and lyrics.  On  Something about What Happens When We Talk  it takes on a slow, lingering, lonely quality that reinforces the lyrics, in which a woman describes the tingling excitement she feels when she speaks to a male friend, and a sense of lost erotic opportunity: All I regret now is I never kissed your mouth.

 

Though Lucinda's upbringing and background are in the South, the melodies and lyrics of her songs seem to have more in common with the big, lonely, open spaces of Texas or California.  The characters in her songs are reminiscent of the characters in Edward Hopper's canvases or in Bruce Springsteen's contemplative albums like Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad. 

 

Early in her career, she was heavily influenced by rhythm and blues.  Currently her music alternates between up tempo anthems like Passionate Kisses  and slow, meditative ballads like Little Angel, Little Brother.   Her ballads seem more authoritative, as if they come from a "deeper well" within her psyche. 

 

Much has been made of the literary quality of Lucinda Williams's songwriting.  In her best songs, she finds a convergence between her inner life and the external reality of a fictional character.   Side of the Road  is a ringing feminist defense of the need for a woman to retain her independence and self-awareness while in a relationship with a man: I just stood and looked at the open space and a farmhouse out a ways.  I wondered about the people who live in it; and are they happy and content? Were there children and a man and a wife? Did she love him and take her hair down at night?  Notice the simple prose and accumulation of prosaic detail, (the field, the grass, the farmhouse) leading to the climactic last line, with its juxtaposition of a profound question with a loving observation of domestic life.  The scene harkens back to Edward Hopper's domestic portraits of himself and his wife sitting on a bed in their sun-filled bedroom.  In a published interview, Williams has said that she had Andrew Wyeth's portrait of a lone woman looking up at a house high on a hill in mind when she wrote the song. 

 

The imaginary happy family in  Side of the Road  is a mirror image of the first-person narrator, who wonders whether she can find sustenance and support in the midst of her own relationship.  She concludes her revelry by alternately warning and reassuring her lover: If I stray away too far from you, don't go try to find me.  It doesn't mean I don't love you.  In  Sidewalks of the City each verse begins with a scene peopled by homeless men and woman haunting the city streets and ends with the songwriter pondering her own life, the transitory nature of human love, and the innate frailty of human relationships.  The song asks a profound question: Can any human being promise another permanence and security'? It also ponders the narrow gap separating those who are homeless and those who lead comfortable middle-class existences. 

 

Williamss close relationship with her younger brother is chronicled in two songs over the course of several years.  In the honky-tonk ode  Crescent City  she brags: My brother knows where the best bars are.  In the later  Little Angel, Little Brother  she views him through a lens of love and regret: I see you now at the piano, your back a slow curve/Playing Ray Charles and Fats Domino, while I sang all the words.  .  .  I see you sleeping in the car.  .  .  an empty bottle at your feet.  The poignancy of the song turns it into a beautiful but mournful requiem. 

 

Williams and her band were at work on a new record by the late '90s.  Emnmylou Harris and Daniel Lanais have had an important influence on the new album because they brought her together with Steve Earle.  In May 1995, Lanois invited me over to the studio where he was recording Wrecking Ball with Emmylou.  He wanted me to play the song for her so that she could get a feel for the way I do it.  Steve Earle was also there because Emmylou was recording Goodbye, one of Steve's great songs.  He and I got to talking and playing a bit and I got excited.  I heard Steve's new album and liked it a lot.  I talked with him ~bout going back into the studio with him and his producer.  We decided to go back into the studio to recutting some tracks for the new album.  I'm going to work out of Ray Kennedy's studiowhere Steve recorded his new album.  I'm also going to use his producer on a few tracks." (Later, Williams departed from Earle and Kennedy and produced the final version of her next recording, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road with Ray Bittan, Bruce Springsteens producer.). 

 

Williams has had some less-than-satisfying business and professional relationships with several record companies over the years.   She described their uneasiness with her unclassifiable sound: Record labels always had trouble knowing how to market me.   I was too rock for country and too country for rock.   Its always a constant uphill struggle.   

 

"When you're signed to a deal, you sign with people who are committed to you and your musical vision.  But then they are fired and then and then youve got new people to deal with who have different ideas.  The label is only as good as the people running it.  In the past, you had the John Hammonds at Columbia who had tenure and stature.  These guys had great vision and passion.  You dont find that anymore.  Record executives come out of business school.  They have no history in the [music] business.  They fly around from label to label.

 

Williams is a fierce champion of the artists right to pursue his or her vision without consideration of commercial appeal: "Hasn't that always been the case with the really great artists trying to make it commercially? The music business is Big Business.  It's hard to be an artist in this business with all the slickness and marketing.   You look at all those music videos with Joe Blow singing about something or other that someone told him would sell records.  It's pretty pathetic

 

"Buffalo Springfield couldn't be marketed nowadays.  Back then, if you had an interesting sound and a musical vision you stood for something.  You'd get airplay and people would pay attention.  It's not true any more.  Partly, this is due to the economy.  There's no room for experimentation and no room for mistakes.  That's got to be tough for kids starting out today

 

"At American Recordings, my new label, communications are good between the band and the record company.  [After a record company reorganization, she left American Recordings for Mercury.] Our bass player is." managing the band.  Everything must be open.  Every one must be straight with each othertry to be human.  You must demand respectnone of this nonsense about the artist being told what to wear or what to sing.  It comes down to an artist taking a stand and saying, 'I'm not going to do this'like when union organizers got workers together who said, 'I'm not going to work for these wages anymoreWhich side are you on?'  You have to know you have something that no one else can take away.  You can make it by yourself:

 

"Neil Young and others didn't let the music industry push them around.  I've had this rebel streak in me.  You can't be a good artist without vision.  When I was recording 'Six Blocks Away,' Rough Trade wanted to boost the rhythm track to make it more playable for radio.  I wouldn't let them.  You've got to look at the big picture.  I'm not willing to make those compromises.  The only thing that lasts is your art and principles and staying true to them.  Finding the musical mainstream shouldn't be the be all and end all of your existence.  Taste changes quickly.  Some want to go for it and get it quickly.  Do you want a long, slow ride or a short, quick one?"

 

Returning to her audience with the first new material in six years, Williams made Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury, 1998), a recording that was worth the wait-it won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk album of 1998.  Her fans often wondered during this period what was causing the silence.  A September 1997 New York Times Magazine article noted that she went through three different record labels during this period, and as many producers.  Gurf Morlix, a longtime collaborator and fixture in her musical universe, quit in frustration.  Hers was the record industry's most notorious nonexistent album.  But Lucinda has turned everyone around who wondered whether she had "lost the touch." Rolling Stone bestowed a near-perfect rating, calling it "a country-soul masterpiece." Spin declared it an album of the year contender. 

 

Songs like  Drunken Angel  and Lake Charles take us back over familiar Williams lyric territory: sad folly of a sensitive soul's self-destruction at the hand of alcohol, rage, or violence.  Yet she manages to add a new inflection to make something new: in the latter song the character has such passion for the Delta blues that he creates an accent and a personal history rooted in Lake Charles, but conceals his former alien identity. 

 

This recording raised Williams's visibility among those who had not heard her music (she toured the high profile Lilith Fair).  Mercury (which bought the rights to the album from American Recordings for $450,000) hoped for a "breakthrough hit." Danny Goldberg, the company chairman, said hopefully, "Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Chapman, [and] Shawn Colvinhave had major success with unorthodox records, just by sheer emotion and talent.  But this is not where Williams's interests lie.  She wants to make music that is art and that will live for the ages.  Fame and celebrity are not in her vocabulary.  What seems clear is that Williams has chosen a long, slow ride to musical greatness.

 

Entry written by Richard Silverstein; based on an interview with Lucinda Williams