By Noah Hubbell
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Alex Distefano
By Darryl Smyers
By Jon Solomon
By Britt Chester
For Lucinda Williams, the birth of a song is seldom easy. Every so often, a tune springs from her consciousness in something close to its final form. But more frequently, the elements of her compositions accrue slowly over months or even years, and Williams tinkers with them each step of the way. For instance, she wrote at least a dozen drafts of "Drunken Angel," and only after she changed the line "Blood spilled out from a hole in your heart" to "Blood spilled out from the hole in your heart" did she feel it deserved to be part of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her justifiably ballyhooed 1998 CD. "That was my dad's suggestion," Williams says. "And it was perfect."
The singer's father, University of Arkansas professor Miller Williams, certainly knows his way around the lexicon; he's a nationally respected poet who spoke at President Bill Clinton's second inauguration. And while he doesn't pretend to be objective when it comes to his daughter's work (he's an out-and-out fan), he understands precisely what separates it from the music being churned out by most of her so-called peers. In the booklet for Lucinda Williams, an assemblage of tracks from the late Eighties that was reissued on the Koch imprint last year, he shares a telling anecdote: "When Lucinda--Cindy, then--was six years old, she was putting words together on paper. For a first-grade project, she wrote a poem and surrounded it by delightful multicolored designs. The teacher didn't know where to put it, the only two categories to that point being collections and crafts, so it was placed in a table by itself between two long tables loaded with birds' nests and bird houses." He adds, "All these years later, the world still doesn't quite know what table Lucinda's work belongs on. She doesn't fit neatly into any of the established categories. She's still a genre to herself, and she always will be."
This resistance to pigeonholing has caused Williams no end of career strife. During the twenty years she's spent in or near the public eye, she's released just five full-lengths on four different labels--and two of these imprints folded their tents shortly after she stepped inside them. Moreover, her best-known creation--"Passionate Kisses," which earned her a Grammy in 1994--was a hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter, not her. Since then, Williams has been described as a country musician, a folk-rocker, a blues belter and so many other things that radio programmers can almost (but not quite) be excused for complaining that they don't know what format her music fits rather than simply giving her the airplay she deserves. But Williams isn't about to surrender her principles for a bigger slice of notoriety. "If you start worrying about the state of radio, it'll drive you crazy," she says. "You just have to do what you do and try to get it out there. I think the most important thing is to make good records and then go out and play your songs for people."
The philosophy Williams espouses is a product of a youth spent in the company of men and women who used pens as swords. The eldest of three children born to Miller and his wife, Lucille, she started out in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but didn't stay there long. Her father's profession took him to schools across the American South, as well as to far-flung locales such as Mexico City and Santiago, Chile, and he brought his progeny along with him. (Her parents split up when she was eleven, but Miller won custody of the kids.) This itinerant lifestyle brought young Lucinda into contact with many of the scribes who shaped modern poetry in the Fifties and Sixties. She met James Dickey in his prime, and while she didn't get a chance to rub shoulders with Charles Bukowski, as earlier profiles have erroneously claimed, she takes pride in noting that a party scene included in Bukowski's book Women is based on a bash at her dad's house.
Just as important to her development as an artist were the musicians she knew only through their LPs. "I started playing guitar in 1965, when I was twelve and a half, and that was when I got turned on to the Bob Dylan album that came out that year, Highway 61 Revisited," she says. "That really had a huge impact on me. He was the first artist I heard who took traditional folk music and put it together with the literary world, which were the two worlds that I was in. So I knew then, even though I was only twelve, that this was something I wanted to do--that this was it."
Her conviction never wavered: When she was in her middle teens--an age at which many people feel smothered by insecurity--she'd eagerly seek out opportunities to perform in front of Miller and his equally erudite colleagues. "My dad was on the staff at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and we would go there every summer, in late August. The director back then was [poet] John Ciardi, and his daughter Myra played guitar and sang, too. And in the evening, everybody would gather in this big barn that had been turned into a huge living-room area; they had couches and chairs and a big fireplace, and all the writers, like the late Beat writer John Clellon Holmes, would gather to talk and have drinks--and Myra and I would take turns playing songs to them." She insists that she never got nervous at these sessions, even though she knew that some of the finest minds in the country were listening to her. "I felt comfortable around them, because they were friends," she says. "They were like extended family. But they also taught me to set my standards really high."