Lucinda Williams writes songs about women looking for independence and fulfillment, about men and women welcoming love or barring the door against it, about people doing their best to get by in a world too self-absorbed to care. Though she sings about average people to the average person, “Williams may never be a household word—her raw, plaintive soprano and her songs about hard truths and desperation tend to make the Wal-Mart crowd anxious,” Alanna Nash observed in Stereo Review.
Although her acceptance by major recording labels has been hindered by her spare, often bitter songs, which fail to fit a specific musical category, Williams has refused to alter the true emotional content of those songs. “In the brushed-off ad-libs and the shuddering rushes of breath that surround her lyrics,” Tom Moon wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “is the sound of a woman willing to risk everything for the chance to tell her side of the story.”
“If there’s a common element to Williams’s songs,” Richard Harrington observed in the Washington Post, “it’s a sense of motion—moving on, moving out, moving up. It’s something Williams knows firsthand from a childhood spent gravitating from college town to college town with her father, the poet Miller Williams.”
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Williams spent her childhood traversing the South—from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Fayetteville, Arkansas—even traveling south of the border to Mexico City, Mexico, and Santiago, Chile. A strong sense of the South, with its country music sadness and Delta blues edge, is firmly rooted in her songs.
An even more striking characteristic of Williams’s music is her “literary attention to detail, her poetic ability to make the most of the little things,” Rob Patterson noted in the Austin Chronicle. Williams began playing the guitar and composing songs in 1965, when she was twelve years old. Her musical influences ranged from such legendary performers as Robert Johnson (blues) to Hank Williams (country) to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (folk). But more important in the development of her songwriting abilities were literary influences.
Along with her father’s teachings, Williams received constructive criticism from family friends that included noted poets James Dickey and John Ciardi. She also found instruction and inspiration in the works of writers Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. The literary insight Williams gained into human emotions has enabled
For the Record…
Born c. 1953 in Lake Charles, LA; daughter of Miller Williams (a university professor and poet); married Greg Sowders (divorced). Education: Attended University of Arkansas.
Performed in folk clubs, New Orleans, Houston, and Austin, early 1970s; as “Lucinda,” recorded first album, Ramblirt’ on My Mind, Folkways, 1979; signed with Rough Trade Records and released Lucinda Williams, 1988.
her, through her short-story-like songs, to say “more with less, especially when the topic turns to the ineffable qualities that bring people together and sometimes keep them apart,” observed Harrington.
In the early 1970s, Williams began playing in coffeehouses in New Orleans, Nashville, Los Angeles, Houston, and Austin. She continued playing the folk circuit throughout the decade, eventually recording two albums under the name “Lucinda” for the Folkways label: Ramblin’on My Mind (1979) was an acoustic collection of Delta blues and traditional country, while Happy Woman Blues (1980) was an offering of original material. The albums, however, failed to solidify her standing outside of her folk club following.
Seeking to fulfill her professional ambitions, Williams moved to Los Angeles in 1984 in hopes of landing a record contract. But, as Harrington noted, Williams has “always been something ’more than’—more punchy than folk, more twangy than pop, more centered than country—and record execs gave her less than support.” She recorded demo tapes for various major labels, only to find they seemed unable to categorize her music. She explained to Bill Flanagan of Musician how one manager tried to figure out why she wasn’t being signed: “‘What seems to be the problem? Maybe you need more bridges in your songs!”’
Finally, in 1988, Williams was offered a contract by the independent label Rough Trade. With a budget of $15,000, Williams and her band’s lead guitarist, Gurf Morlix, produced Lucinda Williams. With its eleven original compositions offering stories of love, fear, anticipation, hope, and longing told in a plain and pained voice, the album was a critical sensation. “She has the kind of voice that suggests the rise and fall of empires as witnessed through the bottom of a shot glass,” Steve Simels of Stereo Review declared, adding that “listening to her album was an experience that hit me about as hard as falling in love.”
Rolling Stones Steve Pond lauded the very aspects of Williams’s music—a lack of polish to hide the human frailties—that the major record labels shunned: “If that means an occasional tentative vocal or an awkwardly blunt line, it also helps reinforce the feeling that you are listening to a singer who is simply telling you the truth about herself. And that’s welcome in any genre.”
Despite the success of Lucinda Williams, she would not release another album for four years. Williams left Rough Trade for RCA, lured by label president Bob Buziak, a strong supporter who promised her complete creative control over her next project. But after recording the album, Williams was not satisfied with the results and refused to release it.
With most of her backup band gone because of other commitments, a second attempt at recording material for the album was even more unsatisfying. And when Buziak was fired during a corporate shake-up at RCA, Williams was once again being pressured to record music that was marketable, rather than emotionally honest. She refused, and RCA reluctantly released her from her contract in 1991.
Meanwhile, Buziak had become president of Chameleon Records, and Williams lost no time in signing on. With her original backup band restored, she recorded Sweet Old World— the album she had wanted from the beginning. “Williams’s voice on this record is completely immersed in the circumstances of her protagonists,” Thom Jurek wrote in the Metro Times. “She offers us a recording that is not only contemporary, but revealing in its portrait of darkness, melancholy, loss, love, and wanton lust.”
Sweet Old World was as critically praised as Lucinda Williams, but where the first recording offered a sense of hope in dealing with lost love, the second expressed a more empathetic despair in response to the larger losses in life. The darker themes on Sweet Old World reveal the maturation of an artist. “I’m trying to try different material and look at different things and open up,” Williams explained to Don McLeese of Request “I’m trying to grow as a person, and the songs have to grow along with it”
On her 1992 Columbia release, Come On Come On, rising country star Mary-Chapin Carpenter covered Williams’s song “Passionate Kisses,” from Lucinda Williams. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Tom Moon felt that although Carpenter sang the song well, she missed its emotional truth: “She’s dutifully reciting lyrics, not tearing a page from her heart. And this song demands personal experience.” This is what sets Williams apart. Even though the sources of her songs are widely varied—places she’s been, books she’s read, people she’s met, things she’s done—she absorbs everything. ’They’re all translated through my way of seeing things, which is small,” she told Jurek. “And it’s done with as much empathy, even sympathy, as I can muster. The emotion comes from my ability to feel those lyrics.”
Ramblin’ on My Mind, Folkways, 1979; reissued, Smithsonian/Folkways, 1991.
Happy Woman Blues, Folkways, 1980; reissued, Smithsonian/Folkways, 1990.
Lucinda Williams, Rough Trade, 1988; reissued, Chameleon, 1992.
Passionate Kisses (EP), Rough Trade, 1989; reissued, Chameleon, 1992.
Sweet Old World, Chameleon, 1992.
(Contributor) Sweet Relief, Chaos/Sony, 1993.
(Contributor) Born to Choose, Rykodisc, 1993.
Austin Chronicle, August 21, 1992.
Billboard, September 5, 1992.
Country Music, March/April 1993.
Details, January 1993.
Down Beat, November 1991.
Guitar Player, March 1993.
Melody Maker, May 13, 1989.
Metro Times (Detroit), November 4, 1992.
Musician, April 1989; August 1991.
New York Times, March 5, 1989; March 24, 1989.
Philadelphia Inquirer, August 23, 1992.
Pulse!, December 1992.
Request, October 1992.
Rolling Stone, January 26, 1989; November 2, 1989; February 18, 1993.
Spin, December 1992.
Stereo Review, March 1989; December 1992.
Washington Post, March 24, 1989; September 2, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Chameleon Records press materials, 1992.
By the time Lucinda Williams released Car Wheels on a Gravel Roadin 1998—her first release of any kind in six long years—she’d been in the music business two decades. Between a history of delays due to a string of record-label debacles and her own notorious perfectionism, the record was only her fifth. Car Wheels was met with the kind of critical fanfare Williams had become used to. Rolling Stone called it a “country-soul master-piece” in 1998, but also noted that, “beyond print media, where she’s lionized whenever she sticks her head out of her lair, Lucinda Williams can hardly catch a break.”
While Williams lacked a huge fanbase and impressive record sales, she caught quite a few breaks from other musicians. Many noteworthy artists respected her talents as a vocalist and songwriter enough to have wanted her on their own projects. They appreciated her “fantastically wrecked” voice and songs that blended rock, blues, gospel, country and folk. Add some heartbreak, a lot of wanderlust and perfect honesty, and Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty and Mary Chapin Carpenter—who recorded the Grammy-winning version of Williams’ “Passionate Kisses”—eagerly covered her songs. Buddy Miller, Terry Allen and Steve Earle are among the artists who’ve sung duets with her. Her inclusion on countless compilations, including 1993’s Sweet Relief, a benefit album for Victoria Williams (no relation), a musician afflicted with multiple sclerosis, is testimony to the respect she garnered from fellow musicians. The Williams children were born moving. Lucinda was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1953 to Lucille and poet Miller Williams, who read at President Clinton’s second Inauguration. Her parents divorced when she was eleven and, in the custody of their father, the Williams children, including younger siblings Robert and Karyn, lived in nine cities—Jackson, Vicksburg, Atlanta and Macon, Georgia; Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Mexico City, Mexico and Santiago, Chile—wherever their father found teaching work.
That momentum kept Williams on the move in her adult life and was a heavy influence on her as an artist. “I get restless,” she told People in 1998. “I’ve always got one foot out the door.” So she bounced back and forth between New York, Austin and Houston, Los Angeles and Nashville. Her penchant for movement was clear in Car Wheels. The title song evokes imagery that was almost literal. For a young girl whose home essentially was the road, that sound of car wheels on a gravel road would become quite familiar. Miller Williams looked back at his family’s travels with People in 1998. “I dragged the children with me and didn’t realize what rootlessness that might create.” Williams, on the other hand, insisted in the same article that “it wasn’t this huge, traumatic thing. I never remember getting bummed out about it. I didn’t grow up in a mom-and-pop, Ozzie and Harriet type of environment, but who did?”
What Miller Williams felt he lacked for his children in stability, he made up for with the nature of the creative and stimulating environment he provided for them. Williams was inspired by a host of her father’s friends, including writers James Dickey, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski and Flannery O’Connor. She picked up the guitar at age 12 and decided on a musical future early on. Williams even, as Spin noted in 1998, works “like a writer of what she pronounces poor-tree” in her Southern drawl, writing as a poet does, using a “process of elimination, of removing all but the essential parts.”
Spin declared in 1998, “Williams doesn’t casually slap together anything.” What’s more important to her than getting a record out, is getting it out right. She makes no excuses for her reputation. As she posed to Spin in 1998, “I’ve been called a neurotic, a demanding diva, a perfectionist. Okay, I’m a perfectionist.” Both Car Wheels and her previous release Sweet Old World took three years in production alone to release. Williams recorded and re-recorded each of the albums and tinkered with production, drawing the process out even more. For Car Wheels, Williams initially recorded all the songs in Austin, Texas, with her longtime guitarist and producing
Born January 26, 1953, Lake Charles, LA; daughter of Miller Williams (deceased) and Lucille Morgan; siblings: Robert, Karyn.
Started playing guitar at age 12; released first album, of cover songs, Ramblin’ on My Mind, on Folkways label, 1979; released Happy Woman Blues, Folkways, 1980; signed with Rough Trade label and released Lucinda Williams, 1988, released EP Pasionate Kisses, 1989; signed with Chameleon, released Sweet Old World, 1992; made Car Wheels on a Gravel Road for American Recordings, record was bought by Mercury and released in 1998.
Awards: National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Grammy award for songwriting “Passionate Kisses,” 1994.
partner, Gurf Morlix. But she wasn’t happy with it. “It’s hard to explain,” she told Rolling Stone in 1998. “Something was missing.” Later, when she heard the sound of her voice on a duet she recorded with Steve Earle, she realized that he’d created the sound she wanted. She set out with Earle to re-record a few vocal tracks for her record, but “Boom,” she explained to Rolling Stone, “We got on a roll. Everything sounded so great and cool and edgy. So we ended up recutting everything.”
Williams’ sporadic releases cannot all be blamed on her need for perfection. After signing a one-page deal for $250 and spending one day at Malico Studios in Jackson, Mississippi, Williams released her debut album on the Folkways record label—a label that seemed a good fit for her crossbred style—in 1979, called Ramblin’ On My Mind. In 1980, she followed it with Happy Woman Blues, also on Folkways. Then, Rough Trade, a label better known for its punk releases than its country selection, caught up with Williams in 1988. That relationship was short lived, as the label crashed after producing Lucinda Williamsìn 1988 and the Passionate Kisses EP in 1989. After that, Williams’s career was plagued by record-label problems. A shot with alternative label Chameleon produced only one release, Sweet Old World, in 1992, then the label folded.
Williams had more trouble finding and sticking with a label than a critically acclaimed artist should. The problem was always that no label could pigeonhole her sound. It was the same problem she’d had before — everyone liked her style but no one could figure out what to do with it. “It fell in the cracks between country and rock,” she told People in 1998. It seemed like she had a secure deal with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, but sure enough, after all the trouble she’d had recording, re-recording, and finally completing Car Wheels, the label’s uncertain switch from TimeWarner distribution to Sony only delayed the record’s release further. That’s when Mercury stepped in, bought the record outright from American, and finally got it out. Mercury’s president and C.E.O. Danny Goldberg told Newsweek in 1998, “I think it could be her time,” he said. “Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin—a number of artists have had major success with unorthodox records, just by sheer emotion and talent.”
Ramblin’ on My Mind, Folkways, 1979.
Happy Woman Blues, Folkways, 1980.
Lucinda Williams, Rough Trade, 1988.
Passionate Kisses (EP), Rough Trade, 1989.
Sweet Old World, Chameleon, 1992.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Mercury, 1998.
Romanowski, Patricia and Warren, Holly George, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside/Simon & Shuster, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, July 10, 1998; August 14, 1998.
New York Magazine, June 29, 1998.
New York Observer, June 29, 1998.
Newsweek, July 6, 1998.
People, August 17, 1998; September 21, 1998.
Rolling Stone, July 9, 1998; August 6, 1998.
Spin, July 1998.
Village Voice, June 30, 1998.
Wall Street Journal, August 21, 1998.
“Lucinda Williams,” Music Contemporary Showcase, http//imusic.interserv.com (September 27, 1998).
“Lucinda Williams,” All-Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 20, 1998).
“Lucinda Williams,” Trouser Press, http://www.trouserpress.com (September 20, 1998).
Additional information was provided by Mercury Records publicity materials, 1998.
Born: Lake Charles, Louisiana, 26 January, 1953
Genre: Country, Blues Rock
Best-selling album since 1990: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
Hit songs since 1990: "Still I Long for Your Kiss," "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," "Get Right with God"
Perfectionist, impressionist, and unmistakably southern, Lucinda Williams is a singer/songwriter whose most commercially and critically acclaimed work, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998), came after spending two decades in the music business. Williams is known in music circles for being stubbornly principled; she is so painstakingly precise in her approach to the entire process, from the inception of a song to an album's final mixing, that years often go by in between albums. Williams struggled for most of the early part of her career not only to develop her particular voice but also to find a record label that respected her as an individual and not as a marketing tool. Car Wheels earned her scores of kudos, ending up on many music publications' year-end lists and winning three Grammy Awards, in disparate
but not totally unrelated categories—Best Country Song, Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Best Female Rock Vocal. Williams is uncompromising and skilled, and writes songs that feel like the rough-hewn but well-written diary of a restless wanderer with a feisty spirit.
A Born Wanderer
Williams was raised throughout the South by Miller Williams, her English literature professor father. They moved from one college town to another, with stops in Mexico City and Santiago, Chile. Her mother, Lucille, a musician, was a great influence as well, though her parents' divorce at age eleven put Lucinda in her father's custody. Early in life she earned an appreciation for the blues and rock, showing a particular affinity for the guitar by age twelve and an enthusiasm for Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. Later she got into blues greats including Robert Johnson. By the time she was twenty-one, she had moved to Austin, Texas, and was part of a scene of singers and songwriters that included Patti Griffin and Lyle Lovett.
After moving to Texas in her early twenties and spending a good deal of time playing her own material and a mix of traditional blues and folk in clubs and bars, she landed a deal with Folkways Records. In 1979 the independent label released her debut record, Ramblin' on My Mind. Her career did not really take off until she moved to Los Angeles, California, but she was again stymied by a development deal with CBS Records in the mid-1980s that ended abruptly and with little explanation. Finally, in the late 1980s, after earning the respect of her peers, who helped her gain exposure by letting her sing on their albums, Williams released a couple of albums that landed her a little closer to rock: Lucinda Williams (1988) and Sweet Old World (1992). The latter includes a cover of a Nick Drake song, illustrating her kinship with beautiful, intricate melodies that are emotionally compelling and distilled to their essence.
From the late 1980s to early 1990s, Williams appeared on tribute albums for Merle Haggard and Victoria Williams, and Mary Chapin Carpenter scored a hit with Williams's song "Passionate Kisses." She got lucky again when "Still I Long for Your Kiss," a song she contributed to the soundtrack of the immensely successful Robert Redford film The Horse Whisperer (1997), became a hit, the same year she released her Grammy Award-winning album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
A Perfectionist at Heart
Both Sweet Old World (1993) and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road lingered for three years in production before Williams was satisfied; such attention to detail ensured that the end result was nothing short of perfection, which critics were quick to point out after both releases. Her restless, nomadic nature prevails throughout the aptly titled Car Wheels, especially on the title track. The refrain simply repeats the name of the song, but the imagery in the verses provides a snapshot of her childhood. Other highlights of the album include "2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten" an homage to one of her musical heroes, Robert Johnson. On "Can't Let Go," Williams takes the lusty, slide-guitar shuffle penned by Randy Weeks to new heights. Her wrecked, wrought voice sings, "I'm broken down / Like a train wreck / It's over / I know / And I can't let go." Atop a bed of jangly guitars, woeful, wailing slide guitars, and mandolins, Williams's voice dips, wavers, and breaks off at all the right emotional moments, simultaneously conveying innocence and experience. Car Wheels, which mixes blues with folk, rock, and country music, features guest appearances by a stellar roster of well-regarded folk-blues musicians, including Emmylou Harris ("Greenville"), Jim Lauderdale ("Lake Charles," "I Lost It"), Buddy Miller, and Steve Earle.
After endless touring, Williams took only a few years before releasing the critically hailed Essence (2001). The title track is the emotional centerpiece of the album, which conveys a more subdued side of Williams, although contemplations on religion ("Get Right with God") are present. But Essence, critics were quick to point out, did not compare to Car Wheels ; there are no foot-stomping, kick-up-some-dust rockers because the album's emotional core is far more unadorned and intimate.
In Spring 2003 Williams released the raw, rocking, sultry blues-rock album World without Tears, another stunning example of her meticulously detailed lyrics and blistering honesty, especially evident on the midtempo, smoldering tune "Righteously" and the straightforward, Rolling Stones–influenced "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings." Williams even dabbles with spoken word on "American Dream," and the title track is a thoughtful, hopeful ballad with an eye toward the future.
Williams's signature style is literate narration, which remains a constant on all her albums. From the dusty, blues-rock travelogue of longing, desire, and confusion on Car Wheels, to the honest, unadorned structure of Essence, to the rock of World without Tears, Lucinda Williams displays a unique blend of rock, blues, country, and folk.
Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade, 1988); Sweet Old World (Chameleon, 1992); Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury, 1998); Essence (Lost Highway, 2001); World without Tears (Lost Highway, 2003). Soundtrack: The Horse Whisperer: Songs from and Inspired by the Motion Picture (MCA, 1998).