Emma Swift was working in a pastry shop in Sydney when she made her daily walk home past three record stores. It was, she remembers, in the days she refers to as before the death of the CD. One of the records she picked up completely hypnotized her. It was Lucinda Williams’ World Without Tears.
The personal pain that Williams emoted spoke to Swift. And by the time she discovered her favorite album, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, she’d come upon one of the first records in the emerging Americana genre.
She recounted this all to Jeremy Dylan on Episode 19 of My Favorite Album. Dylan is the director of the documentary Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts and host of the podcast in which artists talk about how a particular album has inspired and influenced their own work.
Swift, the Australian-born singer whose hauntingly gorgeous mini-album Emma Swift is a prototypical Americana collection, discovered Lucinda Willians during a period she was reading a lot of poetry and going through a self-described Elvis Costello obsession. She revels in the level of intimacy and vulnerability on the albums and how Williams keeps it so immediate.
“There’s always a ‘you’ within the song which makes the words feel so intimate,” she tells Dylan, citing lines like “Once we rode together in a metal firecracker” and “The way you move is right on time” and “Don’t tell anybody the secrets I told you.”
The writing influenced Swift who says she herself does not do narrative. “It’s all about the moment for me,” she confides. Dylan talkd about the realism and naturalism of Williams’ imagery which paints a picture and makes it feel like an independent film. “Another days goes by I don’t think about you,” says Swift in a recitation of the opening song “Right On Time.” “You left your mark, it’s permanent like a tattoo.”
“It’s a level of intimacy so sexy and so very much ‘I’m here… I’m a woman,’” Swift says. “Then she goes to the chorus groan of ‘Oh my baby.’” Swift starts laughing. “It’s a great song about fucking to open a record. She is not beating around the bush!”
Swift finds herself drawn to what she calls the grittier side of twang in Williams music, the sounds that were too country for Los Angeles record labels and too rock and roll for Nashville.
It all strikes an affinity.
“I’d like to think if I crashed into a bar and Lucinda was there, we could talk about Zuma and On The Beach,” she says of Neil Young’s classic albums.
Dylan, who describes Williams as a perfectionist for imperfection, prompts discussion of how she recorded one version before sending it back feeling it was too slick. It is said that Williams went through three producers, including Steve Earle, who reportedly got fed up with the whole project.
“It’s so Lucinda,” Swift says and talks about it in the context of the “Lucinda mythology,” adding the caveat “if the mythology is correct.”
If Car Wheels On a Gravel Road was emblematic of the struggle to be heard in Nashville, it was an anchor for Swift who moved there with a dream and without a lot of money. She said no matter how many nights she was in some bar wondering if it was all worth it, she could look at the credits of the incredible cast on the CD and remind herself why she was there in the first place.
She heard it at a younger period in her life which gives her perspective today. “Without going all Sylvia Plath and giving a confessional, I’m an older woman now and have been through a lot. I better understand a lot of Lucinda’s themes.”
Swift bought Car Wheels On a Gravel Road at the same time she did Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball. She might have named the latter her favorite were it not that Lucinda wrote all of her own songs. But Gillian Welch’s liner notes on Harris’ album put a stake in the ground. For Swift, there was a new kind of music and country wasn’t going to be like it had been.
There was a new kind of music and it was called Americana.
(This originally appeared in an article in For The Country Record.)