Lucinda Williams: The Cosmic Queen of Americana Music
Her voice is smokey, rough, and sweet at the same time. She’s has been described as one part bourbon; two parts honey. Her path to success has been strewn with personal tragedy. It’s been an earthbound trail of loss that has parallelled her success. Even so, her songwriting stands out from the overpopulated world of singer-songwriters in her refusal to allow self-indulgence, introspection, and self-pity to seep into her work. At 61, Louisiana born singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams began her next spin around the sun last month with a Southern California blitz of concert appearances, concentrating on the finest of intimate venues between Santa Monica and San Diego, including Solana Beach’s Belly Up Tavern, McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, and The Echo in the Echo Park district of Los Angeles. The shows were predictably a success. However, her choice of focusing on Southern California with separate sets at each venue from different eras of her career was anything but. The southland of California, especially L.A., is so often neglected and passed over by Americana artists, it was as though she was making a concerted effort to focus on So Cal and pass over the rest of the country. It was appreciated.
Williams’ success has not been one of those typical pop stories that have often been portrayed in country-pop music. She was never a contestant on an overwrought star search show with glib hosts and a hopeful audience. She came up the same kind of path as many of her heroes, such as Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan. It didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it happened over a period of decades, with enough dues paid to keep her and Robert Johnson in good company. It’s been a sometimes lonely road, but one, when looked back on, filled with the soul of gratitude and the finest of authentic country music.
She first came into the public eye with a Grammy-winning hit country song,”Passionate Kisses,” recorded by Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1993. While Carpenter won a Grammy for her vocal, Williams won Best Country Song, putting her on the country music map with a trajectory that anyone could guess. She was not your typical female country singer. In a genre that depended on the big hair, rhinestone glitz of Dolly Parton or the elegant earthiness of Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams was a singer-songwriter more in the mold of the troubadours who came up through the Nashville of the ’60s including Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury. But, she was not simply one of the boys either. Hers was a distinctly Southern world view from a woman’s perspective. This was formed during childhood.
Williams is the daughter of famed Arkansas modern poet Miller Williams. Being a fine poet who was educated in the South, her father was also a fan of Hank Williams and all things related to the classic country music of the day. As she grew up, the music became part of her DNA. Miller Williams was an in-demand college professor who took several literary residencies around the South and the world including Mexico City and Santiago, Chile. At 16, Lucinda Williams discovered the work of the distinctly Southern author Flannery O’Connor. As Southern literature met the music of her homeland there was a dramatic and prolific creative implosion that went off in her spirit. The result has been her 36-year career odyssey of songs and stories that have given birth to one of the most distinctive songwriting voices of the last 50 years.
One of the things that distinguishes Williams’ career has been her refusal to compromise or go with a calculated path to popular success. Beginning in 1978 when she recorded her first two solo albums for Folkways, her songs have grown from out of her life experience without thought of how the songs would market to the trends of the day. When the Folkways albums failed to chart, she simply lived her life and her music, taking a variety of jobs and gigs between Austin and Los Angeles. In 1988 a British label, Rough Trade, released her self-titled album. It was a cumulation of the previous years that included songs about broken relationships and desire. The insider success of the single, “Changed the Locks,” gained the notice of rock legend Tom Petty, who later covered the song. It was the next album, 1992’s Sweet Old World, that gained her the credentials to be considered an established singer-songwriter and led to the success of “Passionate Kisses.” But, it would take another six years before she would find the kind of success that would lead her to living-legend status in the world of Americana music.
Every artist longs for that one defining gem of a record that captures what has been after in song in a way that is both accessible and challenging. Like Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds, or Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Lucinda Williams’ 1998 release, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road achieved both the critical and popular success of works by the aforementioned artists. The album hit a nerve for scores of fans of authentic country music and folk music and allowed her entrance into a royal pantheon of singer-songwriter living legends. It was at once autobiographical, impressionistic, and hit a universal nerve with music that varied from rootsy blues with Southern gospel strains to ragged and ready folk music to traditional honky-tonk country music. Her lyrics were biting, true, poignant, and filled with the same kind of soul a writer like Flannery O’Connor infused into her stories of the gothic South. The album would go on to win a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album at the 1999 ceremony. Since that time, she has released a series of five albums of new material including last year’s excellent Blessed. All of the albums have remained consistent to her process of writing songs that have emerged from her daily life with impressions that inspire while they may make the listener ache with the imagination insight and soul they portray.
Although she’s often been sited as a writer of dark themes, her recent albums have contained a sense of hard-fought hope. Songs like “Blessed” and “Born to Be Loved” point to a clear-eyed view of both the bitter and the sweet, which is experienced in life. In a 2013 interview with The Telegraph in England, Williams was especially candid when she said of her childhood, “I think I saw it as a kind of adventure. What was difficult was dealing with my mother’s alcoholism and depression. From the time I was born she was in therapy and in and out of psychiatric hospitals. There was constant chaos and tension. I always think about Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. They both dealt with similar issues. But back then, talking about depression was taboo, and they didn’t have the medication they have now.” And when it comes to how she gets inside the skin of her songs she revealed, “I’m fascinated with the subject of suicide. I’ve suffered from horrible sadness and melancholia as a lot of us do, but I can’t imagine going to that place. My dad used to describe it as a deep dark well and we’re all standing around the edge and some of us fall in. I think what informs my songwriting is my empathy with that. Maybe that’s what bothers people. It scares them to go to the edge of the well and look in. But it’s what they like also. And wouldn’t you rather feel the pain than not feel anything?”
It’s interesting to note that Lucinda Williams’ career has paralleled the gradual development of Americana music. During the period between Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, so many musicians fans of the New Traditionalist movement of mainstream country music became so disenchanted when most of the artists lost record contracts and were left without the promotional opportunities to market their music, this new genre emerged. Although it has been largely based in Nashville and Austin, the term Americana was coined in 1995 through the combined efforts of Rob Bleetstein from San Francisco and Jon Grimson of Nashville. The result has been a growing genre that has encompassed a diversity of musical roots and generations. When Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was released, it would embody exactly what many were describing as Americana music. It would grow into its own radio format, complete with charts and airplay via the Internet today. There is even an Americana Grammy category as of the last several years. Since that time, Lucinda Williams has been one of its leading advocates and even the recipient of the 2011 Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting from the Americana Music Association Honors and Awards show in Nashville.
As she toured Southern California last month, it seems she had no intention of slowing down. Indeed that may be the great feeling of being blessed for both her and her fans.
This article originally appeared in The San Diego Troubadour.