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."
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."
Still, there's no question that Williams's determination to get the tracks right contributed mightily to the late arrival of Car Wheels. She first recorded the songs that wound up on it in 1995 with longtime cohort Murlix only to decide that they weren't vibrant enough. So she re-entered the studio later that year alongside Nashville renegade Steve Earle and his producing partner, Ray Kennedy--an action that eventually caused Morlix to split. (The rest of her band followed shortly thereafter.) The new renditions thrilled everyone who heard them--except Williams, who subsequently recruited keyboardist Roy Bittan of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band to spice them up. By the time she was finally satisfied and assorted record-company red tape was swept aside, she was smack-dab in the middle of 1998. "Even I can't believe how long it took," she says.
The delays would have been even more frustrating had the disc been a bust--but nothing could be further from the truth. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is not only Williams's best-selling release to date, but it's also one of the most critically esteemed recordings of last year--a vivid Southern travelogue brimming with characters who seem to have stepped off the page of a windswept novel into the bright light of day. The title song is a poignant freeway anthem that paints a stirringly vivid portrait of rural America; "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" depicts modern aimlessness in all its slacker glory; "Concrete and Barbed Wire" uses an Appalachian melody to coolly dissect a relationship gone wrong; and "I Lost It" stomps along on the strength of heavy guitar, rich accordion and wry ennui. "I lost it," Williams sings. "Let me know if you come across it."
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Couplets like this one may seem effortless, but their grace and economy would not exist were it not for Williams's insistence upon delivering no rhyme before its time. "I had the line 'car wheels on a gravel road' for years," she says, "and some of the other bits and pieces on the album, too. I wasn't really sure where it was all going to go. But I keep a running folder of material, and whenever I get an idea, I throw it in there. I do that with old songs, too--ones that I wrote a long time ago and then thought, well, there's good stuff in here, but it needs to be done better. And at one point, I sat down and pulled out everything that I'd been saving and started going through it to see what would happen. And that's where the muse comes in, I guess. It's hard to explain this stuff without sounding mystical and cerebral, but that's what a lot of it is. I think to be a good songwriter, you have to be able to let go--basically open yourself up and get in touch with your emotions. For me, the whole process is very cathartic and therapeutic. It's an emotionally wrenching experience sometimes, but I think that's a good thing, because it kind of forces you to go back to what you're writing about and deal with it. I think it's important to feel things. It's just like when you cry; it's difficult, but at the same time, it feels good having done it."
With that, Williams laughs. "I shouldn't have to explain this kind of thing to other human beings," she notes. "We're all human. It's part of the human condition. But men as a rule aren't conditioned to connect with their feelings, and there are plenty of women like that, too. It's interesting to go out and play these songs and see the different reactions of people. You can almost tell how closed up some of them are by the way they respond to things. But it's great when you connect with someone, because it makes you feel that there's a purpose to all this. Otherwise, why go out and perform the songs? You might as well just sit on the edge of your bed in your bedroom and sing your songs to yourself."
Lucinda Williams, with Patty Griffin. 9 p.m. Saturday, February 6, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $22.50 in advance/$25 at the door, 303-329-6353.