Chris Shiflett spent Valentine’s Day in the company of Lucinda Williams, who invited the Foo Fighters guitarist to her L.A. home to tape the newest installment of Walking the Floor. The episode finds the two diving into Williams’ early days as a songwriter in Texas and California, struggling to be heard in a business whose executives didn’t always know what to do with a left-of-center folk-singing female.
“The country music corporation is still the same,” she says, proud of her outsider status. “It’s never going to change. They said that their artists are cutting-edge, but … no. Sorry. The artists they consider cutting-edge are still very mainstream.”
An Americana pioneer, Williams has charted her own course since the 1970s, mixing folk, roots-rock, country and a Southern drawl into a unique genre that’s since become a worldwide industry. Below, we round up six highlights from her conversation with Shiflett (who will release his own country/Americana album, West Coast Town, on April 14th, followed by the premiere of Walking the Floor‘s 73rd episode.
Williams’ father threw epic parties at the family home.
A longtime professor at the University of Arkansas, Miles Miller hosted writers, poets and other popular figures at his family’s place in Fayetteville. Charles Bukowski and Jimmy Carter both paid visits to the Williams’, and Lucinda – just a teenager at the time – would often be asked to grab her guitar and play some songs for the guests.
“Let me tell you: these writers knew how to party,” she tells Shiflett. “These guys smoked heavily and drank the hard stuff – bourbon and scotch – into the night. But it was incredible for me, a teenage girl. My dad would say, ‘Go get your guitar, honey,’ and I’d play a couple of songs.”
Long before releasing her first album, Williams failed an audition at the former Opryland USA amusement park in Nashville.
Williams headed to Nashville during the early Seventies, hoping to land a performing gig at the newly-constructed Opryland. “It’s a theme park” she explains, “like Dollywood. They have little acts they put on.” While in Tennessee, she stayed with a member of Tom T. Hall’s band. Fortunately, the visit wasn’t a long one. “They weren’t looking for someone the likes of me,” says Williams, who eventually headed west, later landing her first record deal in California.
Williams spent some time in Texas, too, rubbing shoulders with Lone Star statesmen like Guy Clark and Steve Earle.
“There was this boys club thing,” she says of her years in Texas, which took place in the late Seventies and early Eighties. “It took a long time for me to get accepted on a certain level.” Still a young songwriter, Williams found herself face-to-face with country cowboys who worked — and partied — on another level.
“I was so intimidated by Steve Earle,” she admits. “It’s that Texas thing. Guy Clark is the same thing. I’d see them and they’d come up and be like, ‘What are you doing, man? Are you high? You wanna get fucked up?’ It was that teasing thing all the time. . .Part of it was that machismo thing.”
Her first record contract included a whopping $250 signing bonus.
Williams grew up listening to a vinyl collection of folk, blues and protest music released by the Folkways Records label. In her early 20s, she landed her first record deal with the label. The terms were simple. She remembers signing a one-page contract, depositing her check of $250 and heading to Mississippi to record Ramblin’ on my Mind, a covers album that was later retitled Ramblin’.
“It didn’t matter if you went out in a field and recorded it on a front porch or something,” she remembers of the studio process. “It was Folkways. They weren’t concerned with the quality [of the studio recording].”
Mary Chapin Carpenter recorded her Top 10 cover of Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” against the wishes of Carpenter’s label.
“I went and did a songwriter tour with Chapin and me and Rosanne Cash in the early Nineties,” Williams recalls, “and that’s when Chapin asked me if she could record the song ‘Passionate Kisses.’ She wanted it to be the first single off her new album, and the label said no, because it wasn’t country enough.”
Chapin did include a cover of “Passionate Kisses” on 1992’s Come On Come On, but it took the success of two initial singles — “I Feel Lucky” and “Not Too Much to Ask” — to convince the executives of Columbia Records to release the song. Once it did hit the airwaves, it was a crossover hit, eventually winning two Grammys — including Best Country Song — in 1994.
Williams’ songwriting process involves pens, paper and a whole lot of time.
“I’m not real disciplined, to tell you the honest truth,” she says of her writing routine. “I go through spurts [of activity]. I just kind of get in the mood. I’m not sitting down with a blank piece of paper. I’m always writing in my head. When we go out and we’re at a bar, I always have a pen and notepad with me, and I get ideas and I write them down and I keep them in a folder, so my head is always in that space. When I get this feeling — the muse visits me — I get my folder out with all my stuff I’m working on.”