By: Stephen Rose
Lucinda Williams is a singer-songwriter whose music helped define the Americana movement in the mid-90’s. She has released nine albums of original material, combining elements of folk, country, rock and blues.
Lucinda Williams is a winner of three Grammy Awards while being nominated ten other times in categories of rock, folk and country. Her music has been covered by an assortment of artists including Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, and Patty Loveless.
William’s first brush with fame came when Mary-Chapin Carpenter covered her song ‘Passionate Kisses’ on her 1992 album Come On Come On. The song was released as a single in January 1993, reaching #4 on the Billboard country charts, and winning Lucinda her first Grammy for Country Song of the Year.
She discovered Joan Baez and folk music through her mother, and country music through her father, an amateur pianist and Hank Williams fan. Lucinda started writing music when she was just 6 years old, and learned guitar when she was 12. When she was 14 she attended a concert by Peter, Paul and Mary and says she was “mesmerized.” At 16 she discovered the writing of Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor, whom she cites as a major influence on her songwriting.
A product of a broken home, Lucinda’s father gained custody of Lucinda and her younger siblings after divorcing her mother in the mid-1960s. The senior Williams worked as a visiting professor, moving the family to varied locations including New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Utah. They also lived in Mexico City and Santiago, Chile
Lucinda says her father provided a “culturally rich, but economically poor” upbringing where artistic expression was of primary importance.”
“Thanks to my dad, I grew up around poets and novelists and they all had families and normal lives and most of them didn’t achieve even nominal success until much later in life,” she recalls. “I have to keep reminding people that, yeah, I’m a musician, but first and foremost, I’m an artist and art is about expression, about expressing your feelings about what you’re going through every day.”
In 1970, Williams played publicly for the first time during her family’s stay in Mexico City. She performed as part of duo with her friend Clark Jones, a banjo player. She briefly attended the University of Arkansas, but dropped out by her early 20s to pursue a career in music. She initially performed folk music around New Orleans mixing covers with traditional-styled originals. In 1974, she relocated to Austin, Texas and became part of the burgeoning roots music scene. She split her time between Austin and Houston, before moving to New York to record and market a demo tape.
In 1978, Lucinda Williams traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to record her first album at Malaco studios, known for its impressive roster of 70’s soul artists. The resulting album was a collection of country, blues and cajun covers released by Smithsonian/Folkways entitled Ramblin’ On My Mind. Her only accompaniment on the album was guitarist John Grimaudo.
In 1980, Lucinda Williams returned to Houston to record an album comprised entirely of her original compositions called Happy Woman Blues. A pure country effort, it contains remarkably mature songwriting for such a young artist. The album’s charm is in the simplicity of its production and the enthusiasm of its performances. It opens with ‘Lafayette,’ a cajun waltz; and ‘I Lost It,’ an early classic featuring Malcolm Smith on fiddle. Other highlights include the uptempo title track ‘Happy Woman Blues,’ with Andre Matthews on slide guitar; ‘Maria,’ a pretty ballad in the style of Joan Baez; ‘One Night Stand,’ with Mickey Moody on pedal steel guitar; and the somber ‘King Of Hearts.’ Other notable cuts include ‘Howling’ At Midnight;’ ‘Hard Road;’ and ‘Sharp Cutting Wings.’ The album features Mickey White on guitar, and Rex Bell on bass – both members of legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s band.
In 1984, Williams moved to Los Angeles where she took voice lessons in the style of Joan Baez. She performed on stage in solo acoustic settings, and backed by a rock band. CBS signed her to a development deal that never materialized since neither its rock nor its country divisions knew how to market her. During this time she was briefly married to Greg Sowders, drummer for the L.A. folk-rock band the Long Ryders.
By 1988 Lucinda Williams was settled in Nashville where she released her third album, an upbeat country-rock effort entitled Lucinda Williams on the British punk rock label Rough Trade Records. Co-produced by her guitarist Gurf Morlix, standout tracks include ‘I Just Wanted To See You So Bad,’ a spirited rocker about heartache and yearning; ‘Changed The Locks,’ about a relationship gone bad; and ‘Side Of The Road,’ one of Williams’ prettiest compositions. Other highlights include ‘Passionate Kisses,’ ‘The Night’s Too Long,’ ‘Abandoned,’ ‘Am I Too Blue,’ ‘Crescent City,’ ‘Price To Pay,’ and the joyous ‘Big Red Sun Blues.’
Jim Lauderdale, Pat Quinn, and Gurf Morlix supplied backing vocals on this album.
[In 1998, KOCH International re-released Lucinda Williams with several live bonus tracks including ‘Nothing In Rambling,’ ‘Side Of The Road,’ and ‘Something About What Happens When We Talk.’]
In 1990, Patty Loveless covered “The Night’s Too Long” for her album Down The Line. The song charted for 20 weeks on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart, reaching #20 in December 1990.
Lucinda Williams signed with RCA for a time but left when she felt that the label was pressuring her to release material she didn’t deem ready for public consumption. Instead, she went to the small Elektra-distributed label Chameleon and began work on her next long player.
In 1992, Sweet Old World was released. It was a folksier, more organic effort than its predecessor, with the mood set by the title track, a bittersweet reflection on the suicide of poet Frank Stanford, a family friend.
Highlights include the upbeat opening track ‘Six Blocks Away;’ the tender ‘Something About What Happens When We Talk;’ the impassioned ‘He Never Got Enough Love;’ the funky ‘Hot Blood;’ the swinging dance tune ‘Lines Around Your Eyes;’ and the folksy ‘Prove My Love.’ Other standouts include ‘Little Angle Little Brother,’ ‘Pineola,’ and ‘Memphis Pearl.’ The album concludes with a cover of the Nick Drake song ‘Which Will.’
Sweet Old World drew rave reviews, and Williams promoted it on a tour of Australia with Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter. In 1992, Mary Chapin Carpenter covered Passionate Kisses for her album Come On Come On. The song was released as a single and reached #4 on the Billboard country chart winning Williams her first Grammy for Country Song of the Year.
In 1993, Lucinda Williams performed a duet with Jimmie Dale Gilmore called ‘Reunion’ on his album Spinning Around the Sun.
In 1993, Emmylou Harris covered “Crescent City” for her album Cowgirl’s Prayer. She also recorded “Sweet Old World” for her 1995 alt-country landmark Wrecking Ball
In 1996, Tom Petty covered “Changed the Locks” for the soundtrack of the film She’s the One.
In 1995 Williams signed with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label and began work on her breakthrough album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Initially, the album was made in collaboration with Williams’s long-time producer and guitar player Gurf Morlix. According to Morlix, the recordings in Austin were “ninety percent done,” but Lucinda shelved them and redid the album from scratch in Nashville. In the middle of the re-recordings, they “butted heads in the studio” and ended their partnership. [The Austin sessions featured accordion master Flaco Jimenez, and keyboardist Ian McLagan.]
Williams recruited Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy to finish the Nashville production. When the recordings were complete, she thought the results sounded over-produced, and so she took the tapes to Los Angeles, where she enlisted Roy Bittan (keyboardist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band) to co-produce a series of overdub sessions. Rick Rubin mixed the final tracks, however the album’s release was further delayed while he negotiated a distribution deal with Columbia. Mercury stepped in to purchase the rights to the album, which was finally released in June 1998.
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road put Williams at the forefront of the burgeoning Americana movement, a style of roots music know for combining elements of folk, rock, country and blues. The album includes guest appearances by Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris.
Her most accomplished release to date, the album managed to sound both timeless and contemporary while harvesting a batch of new songs that became instant classics including the opener ‘Right In Time;’ ‘Drunken Angel,’ (about doomed Texas songwriter Blaze Foley); the wistful ‘2 Kool 2 Be 4 Gotten;’ ‘Can’t Let Go,’ featuring Gurf Morlix on electric slide guitar; ‘I Lost It,’ from her 1988 eponymous release is redone as a jubilant rocker; the cajun waltz ‘Still I Long For Your Kiss,’ and the pulsing single chord screamer ‘Joy.’ The album is rounded out with the radio-friendly flag bearer ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road,’ the solemn ‘Greenville,’ the folk singalong ‘Concrete And Barbed Wire,’ the soulful ‘Lake Charles,’ a toe-tapping ‘Metal Firecracker,’ and the acoustic lullaby ‘Jackson.’
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was Williams’ first album to go gold, and won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The album reached 65 on the Billboard 200 album charts, and was voted as the best album of the year in The Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll. In 2003, the album was ranked number 304 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
[In 2006 Polygram released a Deluxe Edition including bonus tracks and a second disc containing a full concert featuring guitarists Kenny Vaughn and Bo Ramsey held at Philadelphia’s World Cafe in July 1998.]
After a merger shakeup at Mercury, Williams wound up on Universal Music Group’s (UMG) roots imprint Lost Highway, where she remains to this day.
After three consecutive albums that are now considered classics, expectations were high for Lucinda Williams to keep the streak alive with her 2001 release Essence, produced by Bob Dylan’s guitarist Charlie Sexton. Session players were brought in to back Williams, including Bo Ramsey, who replaced Gurf Morlix on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums, and another Dylan sideman Tony Garnier on bass.
Essence is not as ambitious as its predecessor (although had it been released prior to Car Wheels it may have been seen as a logical progression in Lucinda’s maturing development). The album has an adult contemporary vibe with many of the compositions harkening back to William’s folksier roots.
Highlights include the melodic opener ‘Lonely Girls;’ the angry rocker ‘Out Of Touch;’ the dreamy waltz ‘Bus To Baton Rouge;’ the soulful ‘Are You Down;’ a relaxed ‘Reason To Cry;’ the seductive ‘Essence;’ and the meloncholy ‘Blue.’ Lucinda won her third Grammy for ‘Get Right With God,’ a Delta rave-up which took honors for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.
In 2003, Williams turned 50 and celebrated with the release of World Without Tears, produced by Bob Dylan’s engineer Mark Howard and recorded live in the studio with her touring band. World Without Tears was an experimental departure from Americana, introducing elements of rap, ambient and electronica into her palette of sonic textures.
Highlights include ‘Righteously,’ a slick rocker with a fuzzy Hendrix-inspired guitar lead; ‘Overtime,’ a vibrato-drenched ballad; ‘Those Three Days,’ an angry lament; ‘People Talkin,’ with a drum beat borrowed from Levon Helm; and the wistful title track ‘World Without Tears.’ Other standouts include the opener ‘Fruits Of My Labor;’ the dreamy ‘Ventura,’ featuring Doug Pettibone on pedal steel; the trip-hop ‘American Dream;’ ‘Sweet Side,’ where Lucinda tries her hand at rap lyricism; the pop rocker ‘Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings,’ which dips into Tom Petty and Sheryl Crow territory; and the closing track ‘World Fell.’
World Without Tears became Lucinda Williams’ highest-charting effort to date when it debuted in the Top 20.
In 2004 Williams joined with Elvis Costello on ‘There’s a Story in Your Voice’, a pairing for his album The Delivery Man. She performed a duet with Willie Nelson of her song ‘Overtime’ from his 2004 album It Will Always Be. She was also guest vocalist on ‘Factory Girls’ from Irish punk-folk band Flogging Molly’s 2004 album, “Within a Mile of Home.”
In 2005, Lucinda Williams released her first live album, Live @ The Fillmore, recorded at San Francisco’s historic Fillmore Auditorium. Her peformance of ‘Out Of Touch’ is worth the price of admission alone. Other highlights include ‘Righteously,’ ‘Changed The Locks,’ ‘Those Three Days,”Fruits Of My Labor,’ ‘Overtime,’ ‘Reason To Cry,’ ‘Joy,’ ‘I Lost It,’ ‘Essence,’ ‘World Without Tears,’ and ‘Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings.’
In 2006, Williams recorded a version of the John Hartford classic “Gentle On My Mind,” which played over the closing credits of the Will Ferrell film Talladega Nights. She also sang with folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on the song “Careless Darling” from his 2006 release “I Stand Alone.”
In 2007, Lucinda Williams released West, named for her relocation back to Los Angeles. The album is notable for a switch in songwriting perspective from universal to introspective as she relates the personal suffering brought on by her mother’s death, and by a broken relationship. An experiment in tonalities and sonic textures, West was inspired by the electronic blues of Thievery Corporation and Kruder & Dorfmeister.
Doug Pettibone returned on guitar, with a rhythm section made up of Dylan bassist Tony Garnier and renowned drummer Jim Keltner. Co-producer Hal Willner brought in jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to provide atmoshpherics, and former Tin Hat Trio keyboardist Bob Burger, along with violinist Jenny Scheinman.
The standout track ‘Unsuffer Me,’ is a blues workout characterized by the juxtaposition of Doug Pettibone’s heavily distorted lead guitar played over a cascading symphonic string arrangement.
Other notable songs include the bittersweet opener ‘Are You Alright?;’ ‘Mama Sweet,’ where William’s employs an extended Dylan-style monologue to convey her message; ‘Learning How To Live,’ with its message of renewal; ‘Where Is My Love,’ which employs Django-esque acoustic jazz guitar and violin; the childlike fantasies of ‘What If;’ the warped melancholy of ‘Rescue;’ and the beckoning title track ‘West,’ which closes the album.
West debuted at number 14 on the Billboard 200. It was listed No. 18 on Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 50 Albums of 2007. ‘Are You Alright?’ was No. 34 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Best Songs of 2007.
In 2008, Lucinda Williams got her mojo back with the release of Little Honey, a barnburner that captured the spirit and energy of Bakersfield honky tonks and Memphis juke joints.
Co-produced by West engineer Eric Liljestrand and Williams’ fiancé, Tom Overby, she is backed by her touring group: longtime guitarist Doug Pettibone, joined by axman Chet Lyster, bassist David Sutton, and drummer Butch Norton.
Highlights include the opening two tracks ‘Real Love,’ featuring Rob Burger on Wurlitzer, and ‘Circles And X’s,’ both energetic rockers played with joyful abandon. ‘Tears Of Joy’ follows, featuring a nice bluesy guitar lead by Pettibone; ‘Little Rock Star,’ a quiet song that builds to a psychedelic climax; and ‘Well Well Well,’ which frolicks with the abandon of a country jamboree (Jim Lauderdale and Charlie Louvin, of the legendary Louvin Brothers, provide backing vocals on this track. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs contributed backing vocals on Little Rock Star.)
Other notable songs include ‘If Wishes Were Horses;’ ‘Jailhouse Tears,’ featuring Elvis Costello; ‘Knowing;’ and ‘Heaven Blues,’ a spare delta blues featuring Jim Pettibone back on slide guitar.
Williams followed Little Honey by releasing a digital-only EP of protest songs, entitled Lu In 08. Three of the four tracks are covers: Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and the Thievery Corporation/Wayne Coyne collaboration “Marching the Hate Machines Into the Sun.” The fourth cut is the Williams original “Bone of Contention,” which originally was intended for inclusion on “Little Honey.”
In 2009, Lucinda Williams performed with M. Ward on the song ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ from his album Hold Time.
In September of 2009, Williams married Best Buy music executive Tom Overby onstage at Minneapolis’ First Avenue music club. Her father, Miller Williams, performed the ceremony in a homage to Hank Williams, who himself enjoyed public nuptials in New Orleans in the early 1950s.
“Being married and feeling comfortable in my life, I’ve been able to go outside myself and write about other things,” Williams says. “I feel like this album, as a whole, is positive, but it’s not my so-called ‘happy’ album. Yes, I’m in love and I’m happy in my personal life. But my personal life isn’t the only focus. There aren’t all those unrequited love, ‘I’ve been shot down by a bad boy songs’ … well, there’s one of those … but there are songs about all sorts of things. It’s just a lot easier to stretch these days.”
“People buy into this myth that once you’re quote happy unquote, you just die as an artist – that’s inane. It’s ridiculous,” she says. “People have actually asked me, ‘well, will you still be able to write now that your life is happy?’ That’s a somewhat pedantic point of view, the myth that happiness can’t be part of the backbone of creativity.
In 2011, Lucinda Williams released Blessed, a consistently rewarding album with a relaxed Southern California vibe reminiscent of early Jackson Browne or Norah Jones. Produced by Don Was – producer of Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy-winner Nick Of Time – Blessed was recorded at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, and features Elvis Costello playing a mean lead guitar on the many of the tracks. Blessed is William’s most coherent and balanced effort since her Grammy-winning releases from the mid-90’s.
The album kicks off in high gear with the grungy cowpunk of ‘Buttercup;’ followed by the heartfelt ballad ‘I Don’t Know How You’re Livin,’ a song about her younger brother whom she “hasn’t seen in a long time.” Next up is ‘Copenhagen,’ named for the town she was passing through when she learned of the death of Frank Callari, her former manager. She continues with ‘Born To Be Loved,’ a nice chillout enhanced by Rami Jaffe’s Hammond organ; followed by the atmospheric minor/major key switching structure of ‘Seeing Black,’ inspired by Georgia singer Vic Chestnutt, an overdose victim; then ‘Soldier’s Song,’ a beautiful folk ballad highlighted by a tasty Elvis Costello guitar solo. The title track, ‘Blessed,’ lays an uplifting message over a thick Memphis groove; then the album relaxes into ‘Sweet Love,’ a mellow come-down tune that reflects on her relationship with newfound amour Tom Overby. Next, the album eases into the gentle country-rocker ‘Ugly Truth;’ followed by the groovy jam ‘Convince Me;’ then concludes with the intimate ‘Kiss Like Your Kiss.’
“I had this image in my mind of how a stranger can affect you, and you them, at the same time,” Lucinda says. “We have this concept that someone who is less fortunate than we are in some way has nothing to offer us, and that’s not true at all. Everyone has a gift to give as long as you’re willing to accept it, from the girl selling flowers at a Mexican restaurant to the homeless man on the street. It’s all about the hope that there’s good in humanity if you look for it – which is really the feel of the whole album.”
I Just Wanted To See You So Bad (Austin City Limits, 1989)httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiOehqlrJqc
Something About What Happens When We Talk (Austin City Limits, 1989)
Side Of The Road (Austin City Limits, 1989)
Are You Alright (David Letterman, 2007)
Still I Long For Your Kiss (Koln, Germany, 2007)
Righteously (Koln, Germany, 2007)
Real Love (David Letterman, 2008)
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Cambridge Folk Festival, 2009)