By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
The years Williams spent in and around aca-demia would seem, on the surface, to have prepared her for a fruitful college experience. But after a brief stretch at the University of Arkansas, wanderlust won out. She skipped from New Orleans to Berkeley to New York City, always searching for a scene that didn't exist. Then, in 1979, a friend suggested that she send a demo to Folkways Records. The response she received was a one-album contract valued at the princely sum of $250, and she spent the money well. Ramblin' on My Mind, the platter that resulted, was dominated by covers of songs by country and blues figures such as Robert Johnson and Hank Williams, but she was able to imprint the material with her own musical DNA. Even then, she sounded like no one but herself.
After one more album for Folkways, 1980's Happy Woman Blues, Williams took to roaming again, eventually winding up in Los Angeles. While there, she met guitarist Gurf Morlix, and the group the two of them put together eventually caught the attention of A&R types from Rough Trade, an English indie with precious little experience marketing an artist like Williams. How, then, did the self-titled long-player she made for the company manage to sell 100,000 copies? Quality is the likeliest explanation. Heard today as part of the Koch reissue, her songs from this period are straightforward yet undeniably luminous. "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad" mates a lustful lyric with Blonde on Blonde organ; "The Night's Too Long" is filled with typically tart imagery ("I'm tired of these small town boys/They don't move fast enough"); and "Changed the Locks" is a boisterous blues rocker in which Williams alters everything from the car she drives to the name of the town in which she lives in order to keep a spurned paramour at bay.
As for "Passionate Kisses," it's a celebration of desire that hardly conforms to C&W formula--which makes the success of the 1994 Mary Chapin Carpenter cover seem especially surprising to Williams. "That blew my mind," she says. "I wrote that song in 1986, and it's certainly not a country song. But she has an ear for different kinds of songs besides the usual country stuff, and she was in a position where she could get songs like that on the radio. Every so often, that kind of thing happens. But not that often."
Williams can testify to that from personal experience. Her attempts to parlay the strong sales of her Rough Trade disc into a pact with RCA Records resulted in seemingly endless legal wrangling that kept her out of music stores until 1992, when Chameleon, another doomed firm, put out Sweet Old World. Co-produced by Williams, Morlix and Dusty Wakeman and featuring contributions from Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench, the album is a no-frills affair that keeps the focus squarely on Williams's unaffected vocals, her sturdy melodies and lyrics in which everyday vocabulary somehow attains uncommon power. Even she marvels at the impact some of the tunes have had on listeners--like "Sweet Old World," in which she belatedly reminds a suicide victim about some of the wonders of living. "I got a letter from this guy who has his own radio show, and he said that song meant a lot to him, because he'd attempted suicide one time," she says. "And he told me that he'd played the song on his show, and this lady who was thinking about suicide called him up and told him she'd changed her mind after hearing it."
Not everyone can handle the intensity of Williams's storytelling: She remembers one woman telling her that "He Never Got Enough Love," a Sweet number in which a youth from a dysfunctional home suffers a sad end, was too much for her to handle. But usually, Williams says, "I get people coming up to me telling me that my songs helped them deal with things in a positive way. Like one time, I got a heart-wrenching letter from this girl who was probably about sixteen; it was postmarked from Philadelphia, but she didn't put any return address or phone number on it. It was obvious from the letter that she had been sexually abused by her father, because he was in some kind of rehab program and she was in therapy, too. And she asked me in the letter if I could write a song dealing with that issue, so that maybe people like her father might hear it and it might help them change. I was like, 'Oh, my God.' But when I thought about it afterward, I felt honored by that letter. It made me aware of the responsibility that I have not just to that one person, but to the audience in general. It reminded me that the stuff you put out there can really affect people."
Unfortunately, Chameleon's demise prevented Sweet Old World from reaching as many ears as Williams would have liked, and her efforts to complete an album for a new label (American first, then Mercury) moved at the speed of stasis. A Newsweek scribe's contention that Williams broke her silence with Car Wheels annoys her--"That's journalistic sensationalism," she snaps--and she's equally sharp-tongued when asked about the CD's long and troubled history: "I can't believe people think I lived in the studio for six years," she says, fuming. "That's ludicrous. The amount of time spent in the studio was a period of just over two years, off and on."