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.
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.
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
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.
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."