Few artists translate classic Southern folk motifs into modern pop terms as flawlessly as Lucinda Williams , yet the Nashville-based singer has always been an outsider in the world of country music.
A wistful storyteller who has a sharp eye for detail and a gift for simplicity, Williams is a writer’s writer best known to country fans for penning “The Night’s Too Long,” which Patty Loveless took to the Top 20, and “Passionate Kisses,” which was a crossover hit for Mary-Chapin Carpenter and earned Williams a songwriting Grammy.
Emmylou Harris, another country star who has covered Lucinda’s music over the years, is among those who feel the Louisiana native is an example of the best of what country claims to be, and that it is country music’s loss that Williams is completely out of the loop.
Her edgy, raw sound and direct, brave lyrics have enough bite to keep Williams off today’s refined country airwaves, but no roots music fan should be without her long-awaited new album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Largely written and recorded in Nashville with help from Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale and Harris, it is the best collection to come out of Music City in years. The album–only her fifth since her 1979 debut–was released this summer on Mercury Records to universal acclaim, receiving perfect or near-perfect marks in publications such as USA Today, The Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly. The current cover of Rolling Stone reads: “Lucinda Williams – The Making of a Masterpiece”; the aricle inside calls Williams “America’s greatest songwriter” and describes Car Wheels as a “heartbroken country classic.” It is an album with no missteps, no unnecessary frills, sung in a voice as clear as the perfectly aimed stories it tells.
Williams, 45, has acutely absorbed the Southern music and culture she has been surrounded by most of her life, so she is able to construct regional imagery and character without relying on lazy stereotypes. It’s been said many times that she is to Southern music what Flannery O’Connor is to Southern fiction.
Much of Williams’ new album is set in backwater Southern towns and two-lane country roads where Loretta and Hank play on the radio. A flavorsome mix of mandolins, accordions and Dobro and acoustic guitars also firmly root Car Wheels in the South. Melancholy, aching, filled with longing, Williams’ soprano conveys both strength and vulnerability. No wonder Emmylou feels the gritty, soulful singer should be at the very center of country music. But Williams’ love and respect for traditional country music runs so deep that she’s proud to be a maverick by contemporary country music standards, where style and formula are often rewarded more than substance and inventiveness.
“I don’t want to be identified as a country artist today,” Williams says with typical candor in her raw-honey drawl. “The country music that I know and love isn’t what is being called country these days. So, I certainly don’t want to be tagged as a country artist. There’s just a lot more freedom in the other world–the rock world or whatever you want to call it–than there is in the country market today. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded being called a country artist back in the old days when Loretta and Tammy were at the helm. I mean, look at what used to be the norm compared to now. There’s no comparison.”
Williams sings with a down-home twang in her voice, but she also knows her way around blues songs like Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline),” Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind” and Lil’ Son Jackson’s “Disgusted.” But whereas her first album, Ramblin’, is an adequate collection of blues covers, her last few albums are much more–the work of an artist who has internalized the blues.
The new album’s third track, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” is a good indicator of what feeds Lucinda’s music. Inspired by two books of photography–Birney Imes’ Juke Joint and Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia Portraits–the song depicts a Mississippi beer joint where Robert Johnson sings over in a corner by the bar; a man who tests his faith by taking up serpents; and, last, two lovers who lean against the railing of a Lake Charles bridge. The individual verses present three separate (seemingly unrelated) images; collectively, however, they represent the themes that dominate Williams’ music: the blues, Southern gothic and personal relationships.
“It was this stream-of-consciousness kind of thing,” Williams says of penning “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.” “It just tumbled out. I initially thought nobody would know what it means. I questioned it a little bit at first, but then I ran it by my dad and he said it made sense. It passed the test.”
Dad is Miller Williams, an early civil rights advocate and college professor who wrote President Clinton’s 1996 inaugural poem. Surrounded by a creative environment at home, Lucinda grew up around her father’s writer friends–Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski and Flannery O’Connor among them. Her father’s students were welcome at any time of the day or night. They’d come over for dinner and hang out afterwards, drinking Jack Daniels, talking about art and politics until the wee hours of the morning.
Her father’s teaching posts took Lucinda all over the South. Even before striking out on her own as an itinerant singer-songwriter, she lived in Jackson, Vicksburg, Atlanta, Macon, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Fayettville. As the title suggests, many of the songs on Car Wheels are about movement, restlessness and the places of the singer’s youth. They form an autobiographical travelogue of the singer’s wanderings, maps to places left behind.
She moved to Mexico City with her father when she was 17 and couldn’t start school because she didn’t have the right papers. Instead of going to classes, she spent hours in her room reading, playing guitar, and cutting her teeth on Bob Dylan and country-blues records. But it is her dad who has remained Lucinda’s mentor and best critic.
“I grew up with a healthy respect for my roots as a Southerner,” she says. “I think that shows a lot in my dad’s writing and in my writing. He delves into his Southern roots the same way I do.”
Besides holding tight to their Southern-ness and the region’s cultural legacy, both father and daughter believe stories should have beginnings and endings, characters you can see, and enough sensory detail to capture emotion. “I think the more things you can describe that are distinctive to what you are talking about the better,” says Williams. “Instead of just saying you’re in some town, go ahead and name the town. What town are you in? Listeners are going to get a different theme from the song depending on whether you say Little Rock, Arkansas or Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There’s a whole different vibe going on there. I’m trying to take you to a certain place.”
The new album’s “Lake Charles” exemplifies the kind of conversational tone she brings to her music. She’s not just driving around with a friend listening to music, the song describes her driving through Lafayette and Baton Rouge in a yellow El Camino listening to Howlin’ Wolf. The beauty is that her writing is stunningly detailed, but done so in an economical way. For Lucinda, writing is a process of elimination–removing all but the essential parts so every word and line has meaning and no words are wasted. In the sad and prideful “Metal Firecracker,” named after an old tour bus, she speaks volumes about salvaging dignity from a failed relationship with one simple hook: “All I ask, don’t tell anybody the secrets, don’t tell anybody the secrets I told you.”
The songwriter says the most important thing she’s learned from her father is to make her points in the most direct and least cliched way possible. “Sometimes he’ll just make one little suggestion in a song and it will make the whole thing work,” she explains. “In the song ‘Drunken Angel’, for example, I had originally put the line “blood spilled out from a hole in your heart.” He suggested I change ” a hole” to “the hole,” making it more direct and specific. In “He Never Got Enough Love” (from 1992’s Sweet Old World album), he suggested I change “faded blue dress” to “sad blue dress.” Those are the ways in which he helps me. That’s how I’ve learned over the years. It’s been kind of like having a lifelong creative writing class.”
Because Williams sees her work from a writer’s perspective, not just a songwriter’s perspective, she’s inclined to tackle subjects many of her music colleagues won’t touch.
“The best poets and writers write about all kinds of different things,” Williams maintains, “life and death, sex and love, whatever. For some reason poets have a lot more freedom to do that than songwriters, I don’t know why. I’m trying to change that. In the poetry world, nobody even blinks an eye at writing about suicide. It’s a part of life, you just write about it. You write a poem about a cat asleep in the window, you write a poem about a wreck you saw on the highway on the way home, just whatever you’re going through at the time. That’s really how I approach songwriting, too.”
Williams’ well-turned lyrics, in fact, do deal with subjects like suicide and self-destruction. “Pineola,” also from Sweet Old World, is a chilling song about friend and poet Frank Stanford, who killed himself when he was still in his twenties. “Drunken Angel,” from her latest album, is about musician Blaze Foley, a Houston roustabout who was shot to death during a senseless argument. “Lake Charles” is another new song about a hard-living friend who has passed on.
“The challenge,” Williams relates of those songs, “is to be empathetic without being overly romantic and without being judgmental. Writing about them helps me memorialize or honor them, it sort of puts them to rest for me. Like all my songs, they start from a personal place. That’s particularly true of a song like ‘Lake Charles’ which deals with an actual relationship that I was in with this person who died. I wasn’t able to resolve it in my life, so the song was a way for me to resolve that issue. That was real important for me to do.
“It feels good to get all of that out. Writing is very cathartic for me, it’s a very therapeutic process.”