Lucinda Williams – Setting the record straight
Even worse than the ongoing scrutiny was the price — not just artistically, but personally and financially as well — that Williams paid for not having her album out. “It really is debilitating when you have that much time between records,” she says. “Creatively, I just shut down. I didn’t write the whole time, which added to the stress. So not only am I broke, I can’t go out and work, and I’m not writing. It’s no wonder I was feeling so depressed and so tense all the time. I’m an artist and I’m not doing my thing. My spirit’s not being fed.”
Given the tortuous route by which Williams arrived at Car Wheels, it’s a wonder that she doesn’t lighten up and stop putting herself — and others — through hell to make records. And yet like everything else with Williams, it’s not that simple. “My songs are an extension of who I am,” she confides — so much so, she adds, that she’s willing to forsake almost anything for her music.
Williams’ relationship with Morlix, who had been her creative partner for eleven years, is a case in point. After having second thoughts about the album they’d made in Austin, Williams decided to redo the project at Room & Board studios with Earle and Kennedy. Although Morlix played guitar on the sessions and is, according to guitarist Buddy Miller, “the primary musical voice on the record,” he isn’t credited as one of the project’s co-producers. Morlix and Williams haven’t spoken to each other in nearly two years.
“Lucinda sacrifices a lot for her art,” says Morlix diplomatically. “And I sacrificed a lot to be involved with it. Then the scales tipped a little too far. Before that, they were always balanced by how great the music was.”
In the end, it would seem that Williams stands to suffer most from this parting of ways. Not only does she lose a close friend, but “without Gurf,” says Miller, “Lucinda’s music’s not gonna be quite the same in the future.”
At the time, though, getting Car Wheels to sound the way Williams heard it in her head was her top priority, “regardless of personal relationships, and regardless of the other things that make me happy,” she said.
“The worst thing,” she continued, “would be to sell out. I’m terrified of that happening. I’ve got such an innate fear of that happening that my defenses go up if I even think something’s headed in that direction.
“I’ve seen it happen with other people. They make an album the way somebody tells them to, and then three years later they’re making the record they wanted to make in the first place. My feeling is, ‘Why didn’t you do what you wanted to do to begin with?'”
Williams, who is the daughter of poet laureate Miller Williams, an Arkansas professor who read at President Clinton’s 1996 inauguration, comes by this uncompromising spirit naturally. “I was raised to think about a career, to pick something that I wanted to do and go for it,” she says. “Fortunately, the music thing worked out for me. If I wasn’t doing this I would have stayed in school and gotten a degree in cultural anthropology, or something like that. But this is my calling. It’s almost like a responsibility.”
Such an attitude explains why, as a young woman who cut her teeth on Bob Dylan and country blues — and who grew up around her father’s writer friends, Charles Bukowski and Flannery O’Connor among them — Williams subjected herself to the humiliation of an audition at Opryland theme park.
“At the time — I think it was ’72 or ’73 — I didn’t really know what it was,” she recalls. “I hadn’t been playing out in public very long. So to me, any gig was great, especially if they were gonna pay me to play. I guess I figured that if I got a gig at Opryland in Nashville, then maybe I’d get a regular gig. And so I went and did it — and, of course, I didn’t get picked.
“I just looked at it like I did everything back then,” Williams continues. “I said, ‘To hell with them. I’m more original that.’ I was coming out of the ’60s. I’d always been surrounded by free thinkers and been encouraged to be original and stand up for what I believed in. So I figured it was a good thing that I didn’t fit in at a place like that. It was a badge of honor.”
Williams, now 45, has dealt with not fitting in most of her life, doubtless some of it due to having moved around so much. As an adult, she’s lived in Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, Houston, Los Angeles, and Austin. During her childhood, her father’s teaching took Williams all over the South — hence the references to Jackson, Macon, Vicksburg, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette she sprinkles throughout Car Wheels. In fact, it’s easy to imagine Williams as the child in the title track, the tear-stained four-year-old who’s strapped into the back seat of the family car as cotton fields and sharecropper shacks rush past her window.
Williams, whose grandfather was a conscientious objector in World War I and whose father was active in the Civil Rights Movement, has known social and political displacement as well. She was expelled from high school in New Orleans when, in protest of the Vietnam War, she refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. She dropped out of the University of Arkansas after less than a year. And despite the fact that Mary Chapin Carpenter’s lifeless version of “Passionate Kisses” earned her a songwriting Grammy — and that Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris have recorded her songs — Williams has always been an outsider in the world of country music.