American Troubadours: Lucinda Williams

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For the longest time, Lucinda Williams couldn’t get a break. CBS Records in Nashville told her she was too rock for country; in LA she was deemed too country for rock. She made rural blues records that nobody bought. Or, in the case of 1988’s self-titled third album, crafted fine roots music that arrived too early for the Americana boom. Williams found champions in the form of Tom Petty and Emmylou Harris, both of whom covered her songs. But she seemed destined for a career slapped with that most unwelcome of labels: the cult artist.

Then something happened. In 1993 Mary Chapin Carpenter recorded a version of Passionate Kisses that became a country hit. It landed Williams a Grammy for Best Country Song.

The real lift-off moment, though, came with the release of her 1998 album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Co-produced by Steve Earle, it was a perfect assimilation of gospel, country and stinging blues, driven by Williams’s ear for narrative

and her ability to press raw emotion into poetic song. The album went gold, bagged her another Grammy and landed her a major tour with another admirer, Bob Dylan. By then she’d been at it for well over 20 years.

Not that she’d been unduly troubled about her slow ascent. “It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles in 1985 that I was exposed to the music business at all,” Williams explains. “Before that I didn’t have a publisher or manager. But I’d been playing for years, honing my craft. I knew I wanted to do this for a living, but I wasn’t concerned about making it happen overnight.”

The Louisiana-born daughter of poet and author Miller Williams, she grew up surrounded by literature and music. Her father’s vocation took her to Mexico, Mississippi, Georgia and Arkansas, which gave her an early appreciation of the migratory aspects of song.

She began in the early 70s as a folkie, playing regularly amid the strip clubs in New Orleans, though her creative spirit sparked when she found the blues and, especially, Robert Johnson. Her 1979 debut album, Ramblin’ On My Mind, was a collection of folk, blues and country covers, recorded in Mississippi. That was followed 12 months later by the all-original Happy Woman Blues. Neither record sold.

It would be another eight years before her third album, Lucinda Williams. The grainy burr of her voice, allied to the burning intensity of literate songs about pain and desire, suggested she’d made a striking artistic leap during the interim.

The ever-meticulous Williams took until 1992 to release Sweet Old World. It was another six years before Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. But while the latter’s success provided her with a major point of arrival, it only made her next choice of destination that much more difficult. “I was almost frozen with fear over how to follow Car Wheels,” she admits. “It kind of locked me up. I was so worried about being forced to write more narrative songs like Drunken Angel and Lake Charles and Greenville. So when I wrote Essence [2001] I came up with things like Steal Your Love and Are You Down, songs that relied more on the music than the lyrics. I started letting myself go into another area of songwriting. And once I did that it opened a whole other door.”

The spare intimacy of Essence – whose title song features a cameo from Ryan Adams – shifted the perception of Williams further. She was awarded a third Grammy, for the single Get Right With God. On 2003’s World Without Tears she changed tack once more, jolting electric blues and skittery country-rock into fresh forms.

Williams’s latest record is Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. A dazzling double album, released on her own Highway 20 label, it features guests Tony Joe White, Ian McLagan, Jakob Dylan and guitarist Bill Frisell. Its dominant strain is a swampy southern twang. And while the themes – mortality, love, longing, salvation – may be familiar there’s also a conciliatory feel to many of the songs, as if she’s made some kind of peace with the world she surveys. “I was consciously trying to go for more upbeat styles in my writing,” Williams says. “More rock songs or up-tempo things. It’s a lot easier for me to write ballads and slow songs, so I wanted there to be more of what I refer to as country-soul. One interviewer said to me: ‘You don’t seem as tortured on this album.’”

Now 61, Williams appears to be in the prime of her songwriting life. Where once she was a painstaking perfectionist, now she allows herself more spontaneity and freedom. “The biggest and most traumatic event in my life was when my mother passed away,” she says, “which was right around the time of West [2007]. It just seemed to open up this cataclysmic thing and I started writing a lot more. I’m certainly a lot more confident now. Like a lot of things, if you’re lucky you get better as you get older.”

Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone is out now via Highway 20.

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Read more on American Troubadours Cory Branan, Justin Townes Earle and Chuck Ragan.