By Mark Guarino
“This is the last batch,” Lucinda Williams says of the songs on West, her new album.
But don’t call it a swan song. The new songs confront, rail against and ultimately find solace alongside loneliness and death, the two themes burrowed inside all of her songs in a lifework of 28 years.
This “last batch” are the songs Williams found cleaning out the closet of her personal history, in the dust hairs of wrecked relationships, ones when clumped into a single ball revealed a consistency: “All my boyfriends were rock and roll guys and some of them were younger. That wasn’t really what I needed, obviously. I guess it’s an immaturity thing, you keep trying to find what you need and you have to knock on a lot of doors. And finally, you have to say to yourself, ‘I keep knocking on the same door and it’s not working. Maybe I should try a different door.’”
Though that untested door stood Tom Overby, director of rock marketing for Fontana Distribution, an independent arm of the Universal Music Group, and Williams’ fiancé since last March. They plan to marry late this year. The almost three-year relationship arrived suddenly and with particular ease. “I just knew. There’s just no question. You don’t have to analyze. I wish it happened sooner but part of that was my growth. I had to get past a lot of old ideas and old expectations, old patterns that weren’t serving me well,” she says.
Remnants of that destructive grind — “I would just lose myself in the relationship and then I would resent it and then I would want to get out” — end up on West. Amid the subdued tension of “Rescue,” she reminds herself in listed refrains all the things her lover can’t do for her, not because he doesn’t want to, but because it’s an insurmountable task. “He can’t save you/from the plain and simple truth/the waning winters of your youth,” she sings.
“I’ve since written some happy love songs if you can believe that,” Williams says with a laugh. “But I had to let these last ones out.”
“I’ve gone through a lot of growing and changes that I think are evident in this record,” Williams, 54, declares. It’s a process that can best describe how she somehow got here in the first place, from a university poet’s daughter to a vagabond folkie to a songwriter who today just doesn’t have the respect of an industry that in the not-so-distant past was content to throw her away, she is the rare songwriter who can claim literary grit. School kids can study these songs just as diligently as hungry, eager-to-absorb songwriters at open mic night. In the illuminated images of her lyrics, the sensuality of their presentation and the vulnerable roughage of her voice, she twists together elements of blues, country, spirituals and sometimes a dirty roadhouse backbeat into a near-mystical genre of confessional storytelling of which she is the single living definition.
“Lucinda set a standard for a lot of people,” says independent Nashville singer-songwriter Joy Lynn White who covered two of Williams’ songs on her 1997 album. Williams paid the compliment back by enlisting her to sing background harmonies on Essence. “I can’t tell you of all the girls who are in the Americana genre of music that constantly refer to Lucinda as their mentor,” White says. “If a reviewer puts you in her genre, that’s a real lucky thing.”
“One thing I’ve always noticed about her is some of her songs are so simple but in just those few words and the way her melodies are, they’re so effective. It’s just a natural thing,” says songwriter Jim Lauderdale, who has sung harmony vocals and played guitar with Williams since the mid-1980’s. “It’s very hard to write a song that seems so simple but in just those few words, it says all that it needs to. There’s not much or really any extraneous stuff going on.
If West is a reaction to the turmoil on its heels, then she’s right on target. Williams earned her reputation as a prickly perfectionist by default; one who will fight until the sound in her head is also coming out of the speakers. When a producer added drums to her second album in 1980 against her will, she vowed never again. The radar was up. When critical favor and commercial success met at a crossroads that was Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her breakthrough album in 1998, it was accompanied by magazine articles that detailed the sweat equity it took to finish it, a process that ground through a prolonged cast of musicians, producers, studios and sessions over a period of years.
Of course, the characterization can be taken another way: the defensive offense.
“I heard through the grapevine that she would chew up guitar players and spit ‘em out. I was willing to go out there and give it a run,” said Doug Pettibone, the guitarist in Willliams’ current band. To survive, he learned to read body language. “If she moved her body towards you but didn’t look at you but looked at your amp like maybe there’s something wrong with (it), that’s when you knew she didn’t like it. You knew she liked it if she would turn around and be smiling like a kid in the candy store. And those were the moments you’d go after. She knows exactly what she wants.”
Lauderdale sees Williams as “very sensitive” about how she wants her songs to translate. “That must be one of the reasons why things are so powerful when she records and performs. She’s one of the few writers and singers I know who moves me to tears and at the same time, another song later, will move me to this mystical experience,” he says. “When I sing with her, I’m sort of transported somewhere.”
West was likewise recorded, then torn apart, stitched back, toyed with and tinkered until it became what it is today: her spookiest record. These are beautifully bleak songs even with such dim lights of resolve. While known for ballads eliciting heartache, these songs buck their hind legs hard. Williams’ voice is particularly gnarled; atop the creeping grooves of “Unsuffer Me,” she delivers bruising lyrics (“my joy is dead/I long for bliss”) with no salve remaining in her voice. On “Come On,” the album’s biggest rock moment, she scalds a former lover by blaring a repeated sexual innuendo. The quieter moments find her drained. On “Learning How To Live,” she sings of finding a way to go on after being abandoned even though the weariness in her voice tells us the chances are slim. “All I have left is this dime store ring/but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she sings.
Those vocal scars, more cragged as she gets older, is exactly what made iconoclast Chicago songwriter Robbie Fulks campaign for Williams to share a duet with him on his 1998 album. “There are a lot of singers who can hit the notes and convey conviction … but her particular value is in all the ‘wrong’ things she does, in terms of modern commercial music, anyway: singing in between and around notes, not hiding her regional accent, revealing herself to a sometimes less-than-glamorous effect, the folksy vibrato,” he said in an email interview.
For recent fans who discovered Williams through Car Wheels, West can be a heavier listen, one that relies less on the story narratives of her past albums and more on personal moods. The songs are textured and less straightforward. Producer Hal Willner, the eclectic producer known for working across the spectrum, from Marianne Faithfull to Allen Ginsberg, is credited for bringing in an ensemble of inventive players like jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Tony Garnier, keyboardist Rob Burger, string player Jenny Sheinman and others Willner thought of as musicians second and experimental stylists first. The first thing he did was strip Williams’ demos of everything except her vocals and Pettibone’s guitar. Then he rebuilt.
“We did have somewhat of a credo at the beginning: no steel guitar. We thought ‘let’s do this differently’. Lucinda’s just so much more than that,” Willner said. “I love contrasts, taking Lucinda’s voice which is just so emotional and direct and raw, and contrasting that with strings. The effect is more.”
That is definitely the effect of a song like “Wrap My Head Around That,” nearly 10-minutes of electro-blues featuring Williams groove-talking to Pettibone’s hardnosed blues guitar riffs, countered by Frisell’s spacey accents. “Words,” a love letter to the art of writing, is presented in a garden of subtle delights: slyly shifting percussion, flecks of accordion and shimmering guitar chords.
“Everybody who played on the record really got involved in the musical creative end of it,” Williams said. “I really haven’t gone into a studio with what I would call a quote-unquote actual producer. Everyone I’ve worked with” — Gurf Morlix, Steve Earle, Roy Bittan, Bo Ramsey, Charlie Sexton — “has been a musician-slash-producer. I always had this fear that a natural producer was going to come in and over-produce me. I was still coming from that rootsy, folksy place I started out in.” But as her most recent albums broadened her musical boundaries, she said she was finally prepared for the ambiance of West.
“I feel this album is really the one I always wanted to make,” she said. “I wasn’t quite sure how to get there at the time. Or maybe I wasn’t quite ready.”
The unusual setting led Williams to write songs at night and bring them to the band the next day, a significant blow to the anxiety she endured in past years when faced with writing songs on demand. The major revelation became the two new songs referencing Lucille Fern Williams, her mother who died of complications to the lung three years ago in March while living in an assisted living facility in Fayetteville.
Her daughter’s biographers tend to dwell on Miller Williams, Lucinda’s Arkansan poet father who once recited his work at President Clinton’s 1997 inauguration and with whom she shares her lyrics with before recording them. Her mother, a long-time New Orleans resident, is less known. She was a living room musician raised against a repressive Methodist backdrop in rural Louisiana. After she and Williams’ father divorced when their daughter was 11 and Lucinda went to live permanently with her father and stepmother, her mother turned to a quiet life. Lucinda later discovered she was an avid reader of psychology, was enrolled in therapy her entire life and was the owner of a library of books by Jung and other leading analysts.
“My mother was an incredible, intelligent person,” Williams said. “She was in trouble. Mental illness has run through the family on my mother’s side. So some of (my songs), she wasn’t ready to deal with. ‘Bus to Baton Rouge’ (on Essence) really says a lot about all of this. I remember when I recorded that song, she didn’t want me to put it on the record.”
A memento of her mother’s death is the new song “Fancy Funeral,” a drowsy lament protesting the marketplace of grieving and the artifices pitched to the bereaved. “No amount of riches/can bring back what you’ve lost/to satisfy your wishes/you’ll never justify the cost,” she sings.
Calling the song “a literal portrayal of what I’d gone through planning my mother’s funeral,” Williams said her immediate family’s plan for a simple cremation service in Arkansas was hijacked when her mother’s Louisiana relatives insisted she be given a traditional burial in the family plot back home.
“It really turned into a Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers short story,” Williams said. “I found myself in a funeral parlor for the first time of my life shopping for caskets. It was the most surreal and disturbing experience I ever had.
“Funeral parlors should all be shut down. They just suck you in. As soon as you walk into that door you might as well forget it, you lost control over your senses. In my case, my mother just died and I was the one paying for everything and handling it all. And somehow I got talked into buying all this stuff I knew my mother didn’t want. It was a nightmare,” she said, adding a laugh. “I had to write that song.”
Lucinda Williams fans are familiar with the songwriter’s geography of grief. In past albums, and especially on Car Wheels, her songs recount, memorialize or address characters from her past who died unnecessary deaths, young deaths or abandoned their relationships in towns spanning the map of her early wandering: Lake Charles, Lafayette, Slidell, Greenville, Pineola.
After Car Wheels made her a headliner and resulted in a Grammy win for best contemporary folk album, Williams hit a writer’s block. “It was an albatross around my neck because I was defined by that record,” she said.
The laborious process she came to accept for writing songs was broken. Instead, in a two-week sprint, she found herself in an unprecedented writing spree, resulting in Essence, an album of songs that turned inwards instead of cataloging stories from the outside.
“They were so different in that I didn’t feel I had to work on them as long. I remember consciously thinking, ‘can I get away with this?’ ‘Is this okay?’ ‘Don’t I have to work long, don’t I have to labor over them, don’t I have to have more narrative songs on this record like the ones on Car Wheels?’” she said. “I was really, really worried about it.”
With lyrics hinged on simple repetition, a crucial link to the blues, Williams turned a corner. Through later albums, including West, she let herself be open to different sounds, making room for influences ranging from soul poet Jill Scott, the basement punk of Paul Westerberg, electronic duo Thievery Corporation and the fuzzed out North Mississippi blues of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. The space between albums slimmed, her songwriting loosened, and her self-confidence grew.
Turns out the prime motivator for this creative renewal was a single album: Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, his blues-minded but gorgeously dark album from 1997.
“I’ve watched his career for so many years, ever since I discovered him in 1965. I saw him go through the same kind of transgression from when he was doing the older stuff — Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde — all of these heavy metaphorical and heavy narrative songs. And now, all the sudden, he comes out with Time Out of Mind, which is really open and moody and has real simple lyrics. He almost gave me permission, for what he’s been able to do,” she said.
She met Dylan twice, once in 1979 when he gave her a kiss on the cheek after watching her perform at a Greenwich Village folk club, just after recording her Folkways debut. The second was 19 years later, in 1998, when he appeared opening night to thank her for opening a leg on his never-ending tour. “He had this very, almost nurturing, sweetness about him,” she said. “Then I never saw him again for the rest of the tour.”
Still, they are linked. Dylan and Williams understand how to filter suffering in their songs — by revealing the real beauty within deep sorrows — so it doesn’t translate as boilerplate misery. There is a process and unfortunately, there is a price.
“You have to go through suffering and then move past it and then go back and dig it out. That’s what I do,” Williams said. “Because it never goes away. It’s always there.”
Lucinda Williams Sidebar
by Mark Guarino
Since recording her first album in one afternoon on a budget of $250, Lucinda Williams persevered as a songwriter bent on doing things only her way. It was the world that had to catch up. Looking back, she sees each album as a learning process, on how to make records and also, the patience required to eventually go gold.
In looking back at the seven albums preceding West, Williams contemplates a recording timeline of hard traveling and sweet success.
Ramblin’ (Folkways) 1979
Her debut featuring just Williams and guitarist John Grimaudo was a standout collection of covers by Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams and others recorded for Folkways, the famed folk music revival label.
“I had been living in New Orleans playing on Bourbon St from 1972-3 and from there went to Berkley/Oakland where I dropped out of college to do my troubadour thing. I ended up in Texas. During all that I had problems with my vocal chords. Back then no one had monitors. I was singing on the street a lot so I basically blew my voice out. I had gone to my folks’ house in Fayetteville (Ark.) to live and recuperate. While I was there a friend of mine was there called Jeff Ampolsk. Jeff and I were on the phone. He said he had done a record for Folkways Records called God, Guts, and Guns. I knew of Folkways from having grown up in the 1960’s. He said, ‘you can make a record for Folkways! I’ve been talking to them about you.’ So through him I got in touch with Folkways and they sent me a one-page contract and $250 and said, ‘make a record and we’ll put it out!’ They did all those steel band recordings so as far as they were concerned I could sit in my kitchen and record it on my tape player. They weren’t into the whole high fidelity thing.”
Happy Woman Blues (Folkways) 1980
Her first album of originals inspired by the Cajun music and Delta blues of her youth. Recorded in Houston, it includes “I Lost It,” a song later surfacing on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The recording budget doubled to $500.
“In Houston, these guys Rick Bell on bass, Mickey White on guitar, they were my little band. We didn’t have a drummer. It was arranged we’d go into the studio evenings. While I was out of the studio at some point, Mickey decided to get a drummer to come in and put drum tracks down on all the songs. That probably set the stage or formed the mold for me as far as worrying about being overproduced. I had never recorded like that before. The closest was (Ramblin’), which was just live to two-track. I said, ‘what did you do?’ To me, it was a huge deal. The drums stayed on the record.”
Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade) 1988
Her landmark album of big love and bigger hurt. Williams moves from Austin to Los Angeles and becomes a part of that city’s country roots scene of the 1980’s. A 1983 demo circulated for years, yet CBS, HighTone, Rhino, Rounder and Elektra all passed. It took London’s Rough Trade — home of The Smiths — to introduce her to America.
“I proceeded to keep playing, doing the bar scene, whatever I could do. I didn’t think much about the big record deal or not having to work a day job. I just plugged along. I didn’t sick and bemoan the fact I didn’t have big record deal. There were plenty of other singer-songwriters doing what I was doing. We just all supported each other. Nobody thought about being famous, really. There were people who were hearing me then but no one quite knew what to do with it at the time. The whole alternative Americana thing hadn’t started yet. Suzanne Vega was just starting to get going, she had that first album. Tracy Chapman was just coming out. The whole female singer-songwriter movement hadn’t really burst open yet. I was at the fringe of that but my stuff was still real country and bluesy and so it didn’t fit anywhere. Playing around L.A., A&R guys would come out to see me but no one wanted to sign me. They all liked it but were not quite sure. That’s really the record for me that set the standard for myself as a writer. That’s really the record all the critics discovered me probably moreso than even Car Wheels. With Car Wheels, I felt like I was continuing on the standard I set with myself with the self-titled album.”
Sweet Old World (Chameleon) 1992
Meditations on small town heartbreak, death and solitude. She tours for the first time.
“I was having a hard time. I wasn’t used to writing songs and recording, writing songs and recording, touring, writing songs and recording, I wasn’t used to all of that. I had all these songs ready for the Rough Trade record and then when it was time to make Sweet Old World, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t ready for that. I didn’t understand writing on demand. And having songs ready by a certain time. So I struggled a lot with that. That was kind of a slow and awkward period. That’s why (Car Wheels) took so long. I felt like I had to stand up to the songs on the Rough Trade album because I had the time to work so long on it. I didn’t understand about deadlines. I needed to work a long time and write these incredible narrative songs.”
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) 1998
Soccer moms discover what her cult of fans already knew. The backstage drama of shifting producers, band firings and session overhauls is by now, notorious. No matter, it won a Grammy and went gold.
“The whole Car Wheels thing was my attempt to move away from doing another record that sounded like Sweet Old World. I didn’t want to do the same record again. And I heard Steve Earle’s record El Corazon, which he had just cut … and I loved the sound of it, that cool compression in his vocals. I said, ‘wow this is more what I want. I want that big sounding thing.’ That’s what led to that collaboration. I was trying to encourage (Williams’ longtime producer and guitarist) Gurf (Morlix) to ride the wave with me but he didn’t feel comfortable with that. Steve’s presence in the whole thing threatened Gurf a little bit. Everything sort of became unhinged. I think it was a good thing in the long run. It needed to happen, like growing pains. For me it is probably the crossroads, the change that allowed me to move on to where I’m at now.”
Essence (Lost Highway) 2001
The Car Wheels follow-up is lyrically sparse but emotionally dense.
“After Car Wheels I decided: ‘I have to lighten up a little bit. I can’t take so long to write a whole album.’ Obviously I’m not going to go into studio if I feel I don’t have enough songs, I’m going to put my foot down and say no. I learned how to be in the studio and record records. I hadn’t been in the studio and made that many records. I learned more as an artist and as a writer. It’s just part of the whole growth.”
World Without Tears (Lost Highway) 2003
Neo soul poet Jill Scott and Replacements auteur Paul Westerberg are the unexpected inspirations for these thrashing, groove-heavy songs.
“I discovered Paul Westerberg solo records. I saw another writer who I identified with and was just really impressed with his writing as a lyricist. Only he took his lyrics and set them against this raunchy rock sound. This was something I’d been thinking about for a long time since I wrote, ‘Change the Locks.’ But all my records only had one song on it like that. I had always struggled trying to write more rock songs, it was easier for me to write the ballads. So that was my attempt to pushing a little bit more. I studied his records a great deal and really listened to what he was doing.”