"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. All these years later, the world still doesn’t quite know what table Lucinda’s work belongs on. She doesn’t fit nearly into any of the established categories. She’s still a genre to herself, and she always will be.” Miller Williams, proud father, from the Liner Notes.
It is finally here, in my hands: The re-issue of Lucinda's seminal 1988 self titled album that not only announced the arrival of a significant voice in American arts and letters, but also gave rise to a new genre of music, alt country. Uncle Tupelo and many others notwithstanding.
It's history is well known, following two albums for Smithsonian Folkways and grinding out the live dates, in her mid-30's Lucinda Williams found her musical identity. The only problem was that not a single label, major or indie, in the United States wanted any part of it. How disheartening that could have been, must have been. To find your voice, your uniqueness, to sound like nobody else and no one would sign you. The folks at the UK punk label Rough Trade heard the 1986 CBS demos and decided to chance it. With a miniscule budget (Lu has said it was $10,00o, but the included notes say $18,000) and without fanfare it was recorded in June 1988 at Mad Dog Studios in Venice, California and released in October. While most of the mainstream music press and many record stores (remember those?) merely noted its release or gave it a pass altogether, the indie intelligentsia was abuzz. The "Passionate Kisses EP" soon followed. It was released on CD around the time of Sweet Old World. It went out of print, but was released again on the Koch CD label with the EP tracks added as a bonus. Then, for reasons unknown to me, it too went out of print and has been for over ten years.
What is less well known is that the re-issue was first announced in August 2009 and was expected to be available in November of that year. But, like home remodeling and getting home from late nights out, it always takes longer than expected. The only things that did not make the final cut from the original concept are the CBS demos and a DVD of the EL Ray performances. The 1989 live radio performances are happily included. While the Netherlands set has been available on bootlegs for years via off the air cassette recordings, it is nice to have a pristine version directly from the original source.
Speaking of bootlegs, in researching and readying the re-release Tom Overby became aware of something Lucinda fans have known for a very long time -- hundreds of her live performances have been kept (perhaps hoarded is a more apt description) and shared by her fans. While Tom & Lu were aware of the live material that is part of this release, they were completely caught off guard by the sheer number live sets that were out there and where to find them. Tom, only half-joking, indicated that after the new studio album has been released, he would turn his attention to a possible series of live performances, called, appropriately enough, the bootleg series.
Included with the re-release is a 20-page booklet with photos not widely available, Lucinda's musings on the songs, lyrics, full credits and two essays -- by Robin Hurley and Chris Morris that were unfortunately not included in my set --that explore how the record came to be. The other gem is an extremely rare 1983 in studio performance with Taj Mahal of Mississippi Mudder's "Goin' Back Home." The remaining live tracks were preformed in the same time frame as the album. The LP version has a gatefold cover, whereas the original was a single sleeve. All 34 tracks were remastered by Gavin Lurssen at Lurssen Mastering.
While I have not been able to do A-B comparisons of both vinyls and the CDs, needless to say even if you have any of the other versions, get one or, ideally, both as the LP version contains a only a download card for the bonus tracks in digital form.
It is unnecessary to "review" the individual tracks. We know them by heart -- if you did not pick it up before going OOP, then you certainly know the live versions. As much as you think you know those songs, there is an urgency, a rawness, an immediateness and a lack of self-consciousness that are only in the 1988 recordings.
But what I can talk about is how significant the album was at the time, how it shook things up and rearranged how many folks look at popular music, about country music and about a woman's, or women's, role in music. Emphasizing the latter, it is pretty much taken for granted today, but in 1988 no woman was doing was Lucinda was doing. Asserting not only strengths, and, more significantly, revealing her vulnerabilities in a self-affirming way. She was writing and singing as if her life was being held in the balance.
Take, for example, "Changed the Locks." Think about the metaphysical strength that she holds to change, first, the changeable things, the easy things, then culminating in changing the entire town, as if physically moving the town, while exposing a deep vulnerability. Ironically, it's the vulnerability that enabled her strength. In "Side of the Road" she talks about being afraid she of losing herself in another, wanting to, if only temporarily, step outside the "we" and feel just a couple of simple things, what the wind and the grass feel like alone, unencumbered by the "other," by love. And if that were not enough, then looking off into the distance and wondering what its like to be someone else, somewhere else, the unknown. These are not ordinary singer-songwriter musings, they go somewhere deeper.
The record was disorienting when it came out, a prime example of how an observer must seek out the level of the artist. The record resembles the great existential noir motion picture from 1947, "Out of the Past." Its first scene has you barreling down a rural highway in a convertible with the camera in the back seat. A normal picture would simply show a car going down the road, but here you are the one traveling, not knowing when you will stop or what you'll find there when you do. Second, it was unheralded at the time.
Just as the first albums by The Velvet Underground and The Flying Burrito Brothers, the Rough Trade did not sell all that well upon its initial release, but all three served as turning points in American music. Just think of all the Americana artists, both male and female, that would not exist without Lucinda and that record, and think about all those who try to sound like her, all those who try to dig from that deeper well. And all those who fall short. It is hard to imagine a world without Lucinda Williams.
Credits on the studio album include:
Gurf Morlix: Vocals, Electric 6 & 12 string guitars, Acoustic guitar, Mandolin, Dobro, Pedal steel, Lap steel, 6-string bass
Dr. John Ciambotti: Fender 3-string bass, Stand-up bass, Kramer/Ferrington bass
Donald Lindley: Drums
Skip Edwards: Keyboards
Juke Logan: Harmonica
Doug Atwell: Fiddle
Steve Mugalian: Washboard Chris Gaffney: Accordion
Jim Lauderdale: Back-up vocals Pat Quinn: Back-up vocals
The live, bonus tracks: Eindhoven Live! 1989
1. I Just Wanted To See You So Bad (2:33)
2. Big Red Sun Blues (3:31)
3. Am I Too Blue (3:16)
5. TheNight’sTooLong (4:39)
10.Wild And Blue (3:21) (John Scott Sherrill)
11.Passionate Kisses (2:32)
12.Changed The Locks (4:28)
13.Nothing In Rambling (4:45)
Recorded Live at Effenhaar, Eindhoven, Netherlands, May 19, 1989
Band: Lucinda Williams- Lead Vocals, Guitar, Gurf Morlix- guitar, Donald Lindley- drums, Jim Lessey- bass
15.Nothing In Rambling (Live) (3:13) (Minnie McCoy)
16.Disgusted (Live) (3:10) (Melvin 'Lil' Son' Jackson)
17.Side Of The Road (Live) (3:54)
18.Goin' Back Home (3:21)
19.Something About What Happens When We Talk (Live) (3:20)
20.Sundays (Live) (3:27)
(Copyrighted photo by Brian Blauser, used by permission, Mountain Stage, April 1989)
(Above photos courtesy of All Eyes Media, save for the cover of the 45 rpm single )