“America’s best songwriter”
- Time Magazine
“Lucinda Williams writes songs about women looking for independence and fulfillment, about men and women welcoming love or barring the door against it, about people doing their best to get by in a world too self-absorbed to care”
- NY Times
It’s been quite a ride over the course of some 40 years and 17 albums for Lucinda Williams; progressing from making a record of reverent Blues covers, (Ramblin’ On My Mind), to a snarling, angry statement / observation of a Trump led America (Good Souls Better Angels).
In the course of that trip, I had an opportunity to catch Lucinda and her excellent backing trio – Buick 6 – a few years ago at Massey Hall in Toronto. The moment for me, (of many fine moments), was when Lucinda sent the band off-stage to perform solo. That offered an opportunity, with only the backing of Lucinda’s acoustic guitar, to really zone in on her lyrical expertise. Williams once described the song writing exercise as something akin to going to the bottom of the well, scraping that bottom, and resurfacing with spirit intact to share the experience. That night she summarized that skill with her solo rendition of “When I Look At The World”. It’s a song that might be downplayed as just another good Lucinda Williams song, but it struck a definite chord with me. Forever melancholy, but filled with the optimism of renewal:
“I’ve been out of luck; I’ve been talked about
I’ve been locked up; I’ve been shut out
I’ve had some bad dreams; and then feel the regret
I’ve made a mess of things; and been a total wreck
I’ve been disrespected; and taken for a ride
I’ve been rejected; and had my patience tried
But then I look at the world in all its glory
I look at the world and it’s a different story
Each time I look at the world”
Her father, celebrated poet and college professor Miller Williams, passed on the love of poetry and language. It was also her father– that, incidentally, introduced a young Lucinda to the Delta Blues, Hank Williams and John Coltrane – who urged her to express her feelings without censoring herself. Lucinda benefitted from not only that guidance but also a wealth of life experiences as she and her two siblings moved to different locales as dictated by their father’s various teaching jobs. Miller Williams, who gained custody of the children after his divorce from Lucinda’s mother moved them from their home in Lake Charles Louisiana to different destinations in Mississippi, Georgia, Mexico City, and Santiago Chile before settling at The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Miller Williams – probably most famous for his reading of a poem at President Clinton’s second inauguration – was part of a literary crowd that included friendships with a peer group of Flannery O’Connor, James Dickey, and Charles Bukowski among others. It was commonplace to have the aforementioned as frequent visitors to the Williams home.
As a young adult, not only did Lucinda benefit by observation at these intellectual gatherings but she would also take part in some of the activities. Those activities often included her father reading a new poem that he might have written as well as Lucinda playing a role by singing one of her songs*. And Lucinda would get immediate feedback that naturally accelerated her learning. It’s no surprise that Lucinda would soon adopt a poet’s sense of refinement.
(*An interesting footnote: In a rare 2014 performance in Chicago, Lucinda and her father traded poems and songs in what Lucinda described as a “songwriters’ in-the-round show”.)
Her mother, Lucille, a concert pianist, whose health issues prevented her from pursuing a music career, also played a role in Lucinda’s arts education. Lucinda’s Folk bearings were courtesy of her mother who exposed her to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez – outstanding song writers all. A product of her environment, Lucinda, first showed signs of song writing skills at 6 years of age. She was inspired later, at the age of 12, to play guitar, sing, and write songs after hearing Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Lucinda explained her fascination with the recording saying “He was the first artist who actually managed to incorporate both of the worlds I came out of, which was more the traditional Folk music of America and the poetic, literary world. That’s when I decided what I wanted to achieve”. It’s no secret that Lucinda’s admiration for Dylan remains to present day as she named him as her favourite artist, (living or dead), in a recent interview.
As Lucinda was immersing herself in poetry and Folk music, she added a natural Roots music idiom common to the southern landscape – the Blues. Lucinda recalls that her first real introduction to the Blues took place when the family was living in Macon Georgia. It happened that her father brought her downtown to hear Rev. Pearly Brown, a local blind preacher and street singer, playing on a street corner. Brown was soon discovered and recorded an album, Georgia Street Singer, that Miller Williams brought home. Lucinda further described the experience: “It’s beautiful stuff, like Gospel Blues. That was a real pivotal moment for me, because I had actually seen this guy singing and playing, and then he had an album I could listen to.”
Seeing her future as a Folk / Blues artist Lucinda left home in 1970, at 17, to hit the road. She first started performing publicly in New Orleans and then split her time between Austin and Houston before trying the Greenwich Village scene and later Los Angeles. In fact, Lucinda spent a good part of her 20’s, (and early 30’s), bouncing from Austin, Houston, New York, and L.A. just scraping by. Her time was spent busking, waiting tables, working at a record store – never abandoning her craft – and waiting for a break that would be long in coming.
While by no means an enviable or glamourous life, Williams used that time creatively, always documenting her view of day to day occurrences in the world around her. Some topics were autobiographical, others nuanced observations, with all conveyed in raw mournful assertions be they of love, heartbreak, death, or despair. Even in her early song writing forays her talent to stab you in the heart or kick you in the gut with doses of reality was readily apparent.
Surprisingly, when Williams did have the opportunity to record her first album, her song writing wasn’t featured. Conversely, her 1979 album Ramblin’ On My Mind – released later as Ramblin’ – was a purist Country Blues affair. With Lucinda on 12 string acoustic guitar accompanied solely by John Grimaudo on 6 string, Williams laid down credible versions of selections from the songbooks of Robert Johnson, (the title track and “Stop Breakin’ Down”), Memphis Minnie (“Me And My Chauffer”), Sleepy John Estes, (“Drop Down Mama” here renamed as “Daddy”), and Hank Williams (“Jambalaya”) among the 14 cuts. (Lucinda explained the traditionalist approach as one of being influenced by recording at Malaco Studios, in the lap of Blues country, in Jackson Mississippi). Ramblin’ would be the last recording of its kind – solely one genre that is – in Lucinda’s career. But the Blues, or the spirit of the form, would continue to permeate her work going forward.
Williams followed the next year with Happy Woman Blues, a self-produced effort cut in Houston. While still Blues based and still acoustic driven, the release is a full band work, comprised of completely original material. Although using shopworn themes, the subject matter, under Lucinda’s purview, sounds fresh and contemporary. Unfortunately, like its’ predecessor, Happy Woman Blues didn’t cause a ripple with listeners and record buyers. It would be eight more years before Williams would establish herself as a force to be reckoned with.
Williams recorded a demo of 12 songs that broke with all that had gone before. She traded her traditional Blues for a feminist anthem, (the first of more to follow in her catalogue), channelled through a blend of Country, Blues, Folk, and Rock. But what would prove to be a ground breaking release initially failed to catch a record company’s attention. Fortunately, after being turned down by CBS as well as other labels, Rough Trade, the British Indie label – that had recently opened up shop in the U.S. – was on the lookout for artists and took a chance signing Williams. The label, that had made its mark with Punk, seized the opportunity to release the set of songs. While recognizing the various themes that incorporated a Southern U.S. sensibility and imagery had little in common with Punk, they were sure that the record’s raw energy would override any concerns that came into play. Thus, the classic Lucinda Williams burst on the scene in 1988, and announced Williams’ arrival in no uncertain terms.
The first song “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” bolts out of the gate resolute in its’ singular objective – repeating the title line 14 times in an intense 2:26 of primal need:
“I drove my car in the middle of the night
I just wanted to see you so bad
The road was dark but the stars were bright
I just wanted to see you so bad
It didn’t matter what my friends would say
I was gonna see you anyway
I just wanted to see you so bad
I just wanted to see you so bad”
“See You So Bad” immediately grabs the listener’s attention and sets the stage for the remainder of the record that goes a long way in establishing the foundation of Lucinda’s style and sound that she would carry with her for the rest of her career. And the breakthrough and sheer strength of the release wasn’t lost on Williams: “Before that I hadn’t found myself yet. The Rough Trade album – that’s the one that opened the door”.
Along with the opener two other songs form the core of release and its’ assertive female characters: “Changed The Locks” and “Passionate Kisses”.
“Changed The Locks” is a defiant post break-up song delivered in a sneering thrashing Blues. It’s a rant that details all at her disposal to ensure that her former lover can’t find her while helping erase any memories of the affair:
“I changed the lock on my front door so you can’t see me anymore…
I changed the number on my phone so you can’t call me up at home…
I changed the kind of car I drive so you can’t see me when I go by…
I changed the kind of clothes I wear so you can’t find me anywhere…
I changed the tracks underneath the train so you can’t find me again…
I changed the name of this town so you can’t follow me down…”
“Passionate Kisses” isn’t a request but an out and out demand:
Passionate kisses, whoa oh oh
Passionate kisses from you
Do I want too much?
Am I going overboard to want that touch?
I shouted out to the night
“Give me what I deserve ’cause it’s my right”
The appeal of the album wasn’t lost on her peers. “Passionate Kisses” would earn Lucinda her first Grammy for “Country Song Of The Year” when it was covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter on her album Come On Come On and “Changed The Locks” would be covered by Tom Petty on his Angel Dream release.
Lucinda had finally arrived at 35 years of age. But despite the aforementioned songs and other strong supporting cuts to recommend it, Lucinda Williams didn’t sell well initially. It wasn’t until two subsequent re-issues, in 1998 (with additional tracks), and 2014 (a 2 CD Deluxe Edition including additional studio and live tracks), that the release gained traction and eventually went Gold.
A total of 13 more albums followed the Lucinda Willliams release; every one of them critically acclaimed. But it was her 5th, that hit the streets a full ten years after Lucinda Willliams, that’s a cut above the rest. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road shares the praise with her self-titled release as a cornerstone of Roots / Americana. The album was, and continues to be, universally celebrated as Williams’ masterpiece.
“Car Wheels” is a star studded affair that contains some of Williams’ best song writing complete with earworm worthy melodies. The album kicks off with a radio friendly “Right In Time”; and Lucinda tells her musical stories via fully evolved world weary, whiskey soaked vocals that reveal an array of emotions. And she does so while describing seemingly mundane incidences like standing over the stove watching the water boil. (Reading the lyrics is a treat and is highly recommended).
As effortless as the final product appears, “Car Wheels” has a long troubled history that bears repeating. That history certainly plays a major role in the frequently circulated stories that Lucinda is difficult to work with in the studio. I counter that it reflects the focused approach of a perfectionist leaving nothing to chance while bent on putting forward the best product possible, (and one representative of her significant talent).
The project started with Lucinda and her guitar player Gurf Morlix co-producing (as they had done with the previous two albums including Lucinda Williams). Recorded in Nashville, the resultant product didn’t meet with Lucinda’s expectations which led to Morlix leaving the project. A year later Lucinda turned to Steve Earle and his production associate Ray Kennedy to revamp the tracks. While their work moved the tracks closer to what Lucinda had envisioned, she still wasn’t satisfied. In turn, she took the tapes to L.A. and asked Roy Bittan of The E Street Band to help with some keyboard and accordion overdubs. It took three years for the final product to be completed but, it goes without saying, it was well worth the wait. Every track’s a killer! The album that earned Lucinda her second Grammy, (“Best Contemporary Folk Album”) as well as a nomination for “Best Female Rock Vocal Performance” for the single “Can’t Let Go” went Gold and remains her bestselling album to date.
Lucinda had truly hit her stride with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and she has continued to build on her singular vocals and extraordinary song writing that have encompassed testimonies on problematic topics including broken relationships and tragic loss on her stellar future releases.
While acknowledging Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’s special place, if you were to ask Lucinda Williams fans and critics alike what would be the best of her releases that follow you would conceivably get ten different answers. So I’ll weigh in and say that special mention should be accorded Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone and Good Souls Better Angels.
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, a 2014 release, is an ambitious 20 song double CD. Her first on her own label – Highway 20 – the album marks the first time that Williams has complete control over the creative process; and she takes full advantage of the situation. The song writing, as always, is top notch; but it’s her vocals that draw the listener in. Herein she adopts a more aggressive style while stretching out to include Gospel inflected shouts and melismatic Jazz phrasings. Along with the previously mentioned “When I Look At The World”, highlights are numerous. Of special mention is “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, a straight ahead Southern Blues that benefits greatly from fellow Louisianan Tony Joe White’s guitar providing sufficient voodoo. Suffice to say that there isn’t a weak cut as Lucinda leads the listener on a journey of emotional touchstones.
Lucinda Williams’ latest, Good Souls Better Angels, is without question her most socially conscious, topical release to date. Backed by Buick 6, Lucinda didn’t dwell on the songs; she recorded them live – usually in two or three takes. Using a Blues oriented approach, an angry Williams spits out the lyrics while Stuart Mathis’ sonic guitar attacks add to the “go for the throat” mentality. The song titles alone tell the story: “You Can’t Rule Me”, “Bone Of Contention”, Man Without A Soul” (a thinly veiled Trump directed shot), “Bad News Blues”, “Pray The Devil Back To Hell”. And no discussion or narrative relating to the release would be complete without citing the apparently autobiographical and horrific depiction of domestic abuse laid out in “Wakin’ Up (From A Bad Dream)”. It’s for real. And, if it shocks you or makes you uncomfortable, Williams has achieved her objective.
Actually, there are two additional more recent releases that bear mentioning, and at first blush, might be – but rightfully shouldn’t be – written off as strictly for diehard Lucinda Williams fans. Breaking with the norm, the 2021 CD’s: Lu’s Jukebox Vol. 1 and Lu’s Jukebox Vol. 2, are outlets for tributes to artists and covers of songs that have made an impression or influenced Williams. Vol. 1 is Runnin’ Down A Dream – A Tribute To Tom Petty and Vol. 2 is Southern Soul – From Memphis To Muscle Shoals.
Both are cut live in the studio, have value, and carry emotional weight. “Southern Soul” in particular is a standout. Given Lucinda’s Southern sensibilities, this set of covers – some from the golden age of Soul – is a natural extension of Lucinda’s own work. If you’re looking to categorize the release, call it Alt Soul. And, interestingly, there are no keyboards employed on any of the selections. Defying the accepted Soul band format, guitars are left to do the heavy lifting.
Be warned to wipe your memory bank of the original versions because, as you’d expect, Lucinda takes a lot of liberties with the various choices. Notable is Lucinda’s account of “Take Me To The River”, that borrows more from Talking Heads’ version than it does Al Green’s original, and includes a totally irreverent, badass guitar solo courtesy of Stuart Mathis.
Not long after recording Lu’s Jukebox series Lucinda Williams suffered a stroke at her Nashville home in November 2020. After surgery to remove a blood clot on her brain, and the required physical therapy, Williams has pronounced herself fit to carry on. Her mobility has been affected – she’s currently walking with the help of a cane – but at this writing she planned to be ready for a scheduled summer tour. The 68 year old Williams remarked that she might have to perform “sitting down like some old Bluesman” to get the job done. That’s more than good enough for me.
A SELECTED LUCINDA WILLIAMS PLAYLIST
- Ramblin’ On My Mind
- I Just Wanted To See You So Bad
- Changed The Locks
- Passionate Kisses
- Something About What Happens When We Talk
- Right In Time
- Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
- 2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten
- Drunken Angel
- Lake Charles
- I Can’t Let Go
- Get Right With God
- Bus To Baton Rouge
- World Without Tears
- Unsuffer Me
- Honey Bee
- West Memphis
- Something Wicked This Way Comes
- When I Look At The World
- Ghosts Of Highway 20
- You Can’t Rule Me
- Big Black Train
- Dedicated To The One I Love (with Dan Penn)
- Whispering Pines (with Boz Scaggs)
- Rico Ferrara, September 2021