June 24, 2023

"WHO SHE KNOWS SHE IS" (profanity alert):

The Epic Return of Lucinda Williams: After striving to overcome a stroke that left her partially paralyzed, the Louisiana native knows one thing for sure: Nothing will stop her from going where the music takes her (BRONWEN DICKEY, May 18, 2023, Garden & Gun)

To a male-dominated, marketing-driven industry that fetishized youth, she didn't belong--at least not in the way record executives wanted her to. There would be no spangles or shoulder pads; she wore dark eyeliner and leather jackets with her cowboy hats. Her songs blended folk and blues, rock and country, punk and zydeco, with an undercurrent of Southern gothic, as if Flannery O'Connor had joined Tom Petty for a late-night drive. Like traditional folk ballads, most of them didn't have bridges, and they weren't easily packaged for mainstream radio. They were songs for people who cared about storytelling: personal and direct, plain and profound, filled with misfits who were still worth loving.

Williams tried not to get "too spiritual woo-woo" about the writing process, but when the music was going well, she felt as though she became "a receptacle or vehicle through which the creativity flows." Sometimes that happened in a bar, sometimes at a cheap motel. Other songs she crafted from a file of notes she kept in a briefcase. She revised her lyrics countless times, usually seeking her father's feedback, then worked out the melodies on a '72 Martin D-28. She was the storm, and her guitar drew the strike.

In life, anxiety and self-doubt plagued her. She dreamed she was trapped in a house filled with dark secrets and locked doors. But in her songs, all the doors were open. She could talk about every feeling, every heartbreak, every toxic--even terrifying--relationship. She went where the silence was and sang.

"Her voice was the most original thing of anybody that I knew," says the singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who met Williams in Texas in the early seventies. "She wasn't trying to be Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell; she was trying to be Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf." Her literary worldview combined with her lively rhythm guitar, honed over years of busking on street corners and gigging with blues musicians, granted her entry into what was then very much a "boys' club." She and Earle became friends, running in the same circles as the outlaw guitarist Blaze Foley and cult legend Townes van Zandt.

In 1995, Earle wrote the duet "You're Still Standin' There" with Williams in mind. Singing on Earle's record introduced her to Ray Kennedy, a Nashville producer she still works with today, and an even wider audience. By then, she had already recorded the first version of her fifth album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

Myths and legends about the making of Car Wheels persist. Over the course of five years, Williams recorded the entire album twice at several different studios and butted heads with multiple producers--including Earle--before nailing a sound that satisfied her. "Working in the studio," she says, "whatever issues are going on with people seem to bubble to the surface. It becomes like one big therapy session."

At one point, after weeks of smaller conflicts, Williams complained to Earle that she sounded too slick, too "overproduced," and asked to rerecord her vocals for the song "Lake Charles." Earle told her she didn't need to. She insisted. "It became this long, labored thing, and nothing was getting finished," Earle recalls. Finally, exasperated, he'd had enough. "When are you going to trust someone, Lu?" he said.

"Looking back," Williams says, she knows Earle pushed her musically "because he cared, and he loved me and appreciated what I did." But at that point, she couldn't trust most other people with her work, and the journalists who wrote about her during this period in the nineties weren't kind to her about it. They portrayed her as flaky and neurotic, shackling her with the label "obsessive perfectionist" for years.

In truth, Williams was petrified. For more than two decades, she'd been one of only a handful of women making this type of music, which mainstream record labels told her was "too country for rock" and "too rock for country." She'd crisscrossed America playing small bars while pulling shifts at taco stands and health food stores. She'd lost several talented friends to suicide. Now that her career had finally taken off, she wanted to do her best work, and obsessing over small details became the way her brain tried to protect itself. That pressure built until she broke--or at least until she crumpled to the floor of the vocal booth and cried.

Williams and Earle later smoothed things out, largely because of how much Earle admired Williams's underdog tenacity and her compassion as an artist; he still does. "This job is empathy," he says. "People don't give a f **k what happened to you, they care about what happened to you that also happened to them." And Williams had a way of writing songs that made listeners feel understood.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was finally released in 1998, when Williams was forty-five. The vision she fought so hard to realize turned out to be the right one. Rolling Stone called it "near absolute mastery of the pop songcraft" and "excellent only when it isn't superlative." The album spanned the full emotional scale, from up-beat anthems to brooding ballads; pure silk laced with snake venom. Within a year, it went gold and won Williams a second Grammy, this time for Best Contemporary Folk Album. More important, it influenced an entire generation of younger artists. 

 

"In the frame of a song, we don't have a lot of time to work," the singer-songwriter Jason Isbell explains. "In order to take the listener to the place where you want them to be, you have to pick exactly the right details. And I feel like Lucinda has always been a master of that." Had it not been for her example, Isbell says, "I would have settled for a lot of the wrong words."

Ask her fans to quote their favorite Williams lines, and most can rattle off a list. Maybe it's "heavy blankets cover lonely girls," or "I need a little time / to follow that unbroken line / to the place where the wild things grow." (Mine have always been "If we lived in a world without tears / ...How would broken find the bones?") One of Isbell's favorites comes from "Bus to Baton Rouge," a slow waltz off Williams's 2001 Essence album, in which the singer recalls childhood visits to her grandparents' home and the family turmoil associated with it:

 

There was this beautiful lamp I always loved
A seashore was painted on the shade
It would turn around when you switched on the bulb
And gently rock the waves

 

The musician Sharon Van Etten explains Williams's skill this way: "She can look back on her life and tell a story like it's not happening to her. She can see pain in places that other people or other writers may not want to go." Having once left an abusive relationship, Van Etten hears in Williams's lyrics the strength of a woman who refused to let darkness define or diminish her. "Anyone that's a survivor of any nature, really, connects with her music," says Van Etten, who is forty-two. In 2021, Williams covered Van Etten's song "Save Yourself," and the memory of it still brings the younger songwriter to tears. "She gave it all this wisdom that I can't yet."

That wisdom has been hard-won. The success of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road vaulted the normally shy Williams into a new level of fame, one she didn't always feel equipped to handle. She was now playing for much bigger audiences and, suddenly, besotted strangers felt that they knew her. "One time, after a show in Minneapolis, this woman said, 'Did you have a difficult childhood?'" she says. A tired Lucinda nodded, thanked her, and walked backstage. At times, all she wanted to do was hide.


Instead, Williams leaned on her band, whom she considered her family, and came to understand that she didn't have to be so hard on herself. No one gifted her with talent; she earned it. After so many years of second-guessing, she "learned how to connect with audiences and got comfortable with it," Steve Earle says. "She slowly but surely realized that it was out there, that those folks were out there, and they were going to let her just be the way that she is."

Posted by at June 24, 2023 12:00 AM

  

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