By Mark Guarino
Here are the ingredients to make a Lucinda Williams album from the woman herself: “I write songs about love, I write songs about sex, I write songs about God.”
Well gee, so does Madonna. The difference in Williams’ case is her roots. At her sold-out show Monday at Navy Pier’s Skyline Stage, she and guitarist Bo Ramsey introduced “Down the Big Road Blues,” an obscure Delta blues song recorded in 1930 by the female singer Mattie Delaney. The lyrics Williams sang, “If I can’t carry you/I’ll carry someone else,” were brazen for the year they were written and even gustier in the male-dominated world of the roadside country blues club.
Williams debuted as a blues interpreter with her first album, “Ramblin’,” a slight collection of obscure covers she recorded in 1978. Although her following five albums established her as a songwriter’s songwriter, Williams true affiliation has always been with the bawdy female blues shouters of the early century like Delaney, Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith. The tie that bound them together were the lyrics they sang and how they sang them: steeped in deep emotion and with an attitude that was fearless.
What’s remarkable is that almost 100 years later, even in a world that gives us a belly ringed video bunny like Britney Spears, the sound of a 48-year-old woman singing about her very real desires for love, sex and “getting right with God,” still strikes nerves.
That’s been Williams’ curse over her last two decades making music. Long before Madonna’s current incarnation as the rhinestone cowgirl, Williams was slogging away writing and recording her own countrified confessional songs that drew acclaim from critics, but little interest from a wider public. Instead, her claim to fame was as a dutiful supplier of hits for other, brighter-faced country stars like Patty Loveless, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris.
What separated Williams from the hit machine mentality of most Nashville songwriters was her uncanny ability to plumb her own feelings and her refusal to cast anything — no matter how intense or obsessive — out. Consider some song titles: “I Wanted To See You So Bad,” “Something About What Happens When We Talk,” “I Lost It,” “Am I Too Blue.” In her world, having a conversation with someone for hours is the sexiest thing and then yearning for it days later is enough to put you in heat.
Still, Williams was relegated to the fringe. That is, until the alt.country movement of the mid-‘90s came around. At its core were refugees from punk rock whose hatred of shallow, commercial rock was easily transferable for the Shanias and Garths of mainstream Nashville. That provided an instant audience for Williams’ 1998 breakthrough, “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” (Mercury), an album that unleashed tastemakers to heap slovenly praise on her every chance they got as if they knew this was their only chance.
But still, typical Williams fare like “Drunken Angel” — romanticizing a doomed songwriter — and “Metal Firecracker” — an tormented affair gone wrong — were too scary specific to appeal to a general radio audience. What instead became a hit was the bland rock song “Can’t Let Go,” the one song on her album she didn’t even write.
Although she dragged that song out to play Monday, it was more of an obligatory gesture. So were the few songs she played from her hastily produced follow-up album, “Essence” (Lost Highway/Universal) such as “Out of Touch,” that laments private lives lost in a public world, but without the personal specificity that makes her songs so special.
Her show blazed to life when barriers fell. She was squeezed into tight leather pants and was topped with a straw cowboy hat, but Williams was still in stark contrast to the femininity of Shania Twain’s girly strut anthem, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” This was the road-worn loner more in common with male songwriters like Neil Young. Snarling the lyrics to the song “Joy” over its single guitar riff that burned long and rough, Williams was grittier than both the Lilith Fair earth mothers and the country music pop queens put together.
Her appeal lies with her songs, which start somewhere familiar but then go to unexpected places. A new song is plaintively titled “Blue,” but is instead the only song I know of that’s a literally a love letter to depression itself.
Curiosity seekers from the success of “Car Wheels” made for a crowd that was more Ravinia than Riviera. But still the catcalls came during songs like “Right In Time,” in which Williams recounts taking her clothes off, getting into bed, turning out the light and thinking “about you and that looooong ride.” Her voice was flat, raspy from too many cigarettes perhaps, but to the women whooping their approval, she was exactly in tune.
Or how about the song she ended her two-hour show with, a slow trembling ballad named “I Envy the Wind,” where she is jealous of the wind because it “moves through your hair,” the rain because it “touches your tongue” and the sun because it “makes you hot.”
Here was the spirit of those old-time blues women doomed to be outsiders but relegated to tell a universal truth: that the rest of the world may be ashamed of loneliness and lust, but to the woman growling about on a stage — and to the women perched in front to listen — they’re feelings as undeniable as a steamy June night.