Thirty Years With Lucinda Williams
In the mid-1980s I became immersed in the world of jazz and cabaret — there were a load of clubs, cafes, and piano bars liberally strewn throughout New York. Within just a ten-minute walk from where I was living in Hell’s Kitchen, there was at least one such place per block. And the Village still held the front on and around 7th Avenue.
So, I was jolted back into an alternate reality when, while visiting Austin in 1986, I first heard a skinny, almost frail-looking young woman with stringy blonde hair sing the opening lines of “The Night’s Too Long,” as I turned from the bar holding two Olympias in my hands. It took me till the end of the song to get back to my table. She proceeded to do many of the songs that later were included on her Rough Trade debut – two and a half years later. What I heard that night was a jazz singer working in a genre that had yet to be named. As we know now, it was the beginning of a new American songbook — the alt-country/Americana version.
While it took the established music press a few months to catch up to Lucinda Williams’ debut, a not-too-close acquaintance you may have heard of, Robert Christgau, was an early champion as he gave it a glowing review in The Village Voice within a week of its release. While Larry Campbell may have used a mix tape of the Louvin Brothers to woo Teresa Williams, I used the Rough Trade album and some of the Folkways songs as a mix tape to do some wooing of my own.
After 1986, I was then on a quest to find out everything I could about Williams. That was not easy in a pre-Internet age. It was fairly easy to track down her first two albums on Folkways, as Tower Records seemed to stock everything on that label. But, while the name was the same, the sound was not. It was only later that I learned, in an interview, she found her voice only after she stopped trying to sing like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, who were up to that point pretty much the standard bearers of the singer-sonqwriter genre.
We all know what happened after that, including the monster album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, that took the top spot in 1998 in the Voice’s prestigious Pazz & Jop critics’ poll that was founded by Christgau. Williams the last female artist to have received that honor, and at the time it was the best received album in the poll’s then-27-years of existence.
The album’s success was a double-edged sword. While it won her loads of new fans, they just wanted more of the same from the next album, and many left when that did not happen. But the other edge of that sword is that I have never seen fans, admirers, and followers that are as loyal and fervent as Williams’ are. They all refer to her on a shortened, first-name basis.
While I have seen Lucinda Williams live many times in the past 30 years, significantly more often any other artist, it was during her Essence tour at the 930 Club in Washington I turned to my girlfriend and said, “So, this is what seeing Billie Holiday must have been like.” I do not say this lightly, and as much I die nearly every time I listen to Holiday on record, we can never know how captivating she must have been on stage. But, there was something about that tour that caused me to shiver and hear ghosts. I caught six of its shows.
Speaking of which, following a short European tour, a few days ago Lucinda Williams boarded the Cayamo cruise in Miami for a week, along with a who’s who of Americana music and what promises to be one hell of a release party for her new album, The Ghosts of Highway 20. After listening to it for a couple of weeks now, I am reminded of what Frank Capra said about his post-war masterwork It’s a Wonderful Life: “I wanted to make a movie that contained everything that I had learned as a filmmaker and everything I had experienced in life.”
I can say the same thing about Ghosts. While I will leave a full review to another ND writer, let me say that it delves deeper into some themes Williams has explored before, but her inward and outward reflective vignettes remind me, metaphorically, of the writings of Isabelle Eberhardt — not as a seeker of oblivion, but rather as a peerless unraveler of what we call humanity. In this, her latest quest, Williams is joined by her longtime rhythm section of David Sutton and Butch Norton and, on nearly every track, two phenomenal guiartists — Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz — who sonically weave and lovingly caress Williams’ vocals, which are sometimes in a near whisper and other times a deep Howlin’ Wolf-like moan.
Frisell has been my favorite guitarist ever since his early experiemntal jazz days, and since the release of his 1997 album Nashville, he has been devoting much of his creativity to the many variations of Americana. He and Leisz have played together for some time and their camaderie is used here to flesh out and underscore the tone poem that is this record. A poem to life, love, death and everything in between. It is a gorgeous-sounding record.
I am not often given to hyperbole, but here it is — The Ghosts of Highway 20 is Williams’ most solid, satisfying, luxurious, and most complete work since Essence. That is saying something, as nearly every album of hers, including Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, has been my album of the year in which it was released. On this site, I described that last album as the Queen in her many guises. In Ghosts there are no masks, no lingering illusions, no obscure desires.
Finally, I recommend listening to this record on a real stereo, not necessarily loud. Hearing it on an iPod or some Bluetooth speaker just isn’t going to cut it. Put the record on as you scroll through the following photos of Lucinda Williams in more or less chronological order, including one taken backstage at Farm Aid with her longtime friend Hilary Chiz, who was kind enough to provide me with a copy.