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Lucinda Williams’ Home-Grown Masterpiece

It took four years, three producers and the breakup of her band for America’s greatest songwriter to make a heartbroken country classic

Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams performing in Mountain View, California on September 26th, 1998.

Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect/Getty

The woman at the bar is forty-five. Her hair, cropped short, was dyed brown two days ago because she felt like she needed a change. She has one hand wrapped around a Corona, the other entwined with her boyfriend’s. He’s a few years older, a bass player who could pass for Tom Waits’ lost Southern brother, and the woman is using his chest as a backrest while they watch the band rip the roof off a small Nashville cafe on a Monday night. They laugh as he whispers something in her ear; they call each other “babe.”

If you didn’t already know this woman was Lucinda Williams, you’d surely recognize her as a character from a Lucinda Williams song. It’s midnight at the Bluebird Cafe, Nashville’s most famous songwriting hub. Almost four years ago, Williams used this very spot to join her friends Emmylou Harris and John Prine while she previewed material from her new album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, but tonight Williams is a spectator. Her record is finished —– is, in fact, a minor miracle, in part because it took four painful years to make but mostly because of its startling depth and beauty.

As Williams watches the band, well wishers shuffle up to offer congratulations. She says thanks, smiles shyly, chats – but this is clearly a position that Williams is not used to. She has been playing music professionally for more than twenty-five years, but Car Wheels is just her fourth album of original material; covers of her songs “Changed the Locks” and “The Night’s Too Long” have been hits for Tom Petty and Patty Loveless, respectively, but Williams has never had a hit herself. She won a Grammy for Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s version of her song “Passionate Kisses,” yet, until now, Williams has never even been on a major label. After all these years, Williams has arrived at her big moment as a world-weary ingénue.

Which is why you can spot Williams so easily: the black T-shirt, bottle of beer, eyes that are kind but tired. If you’ve heard one of Williams’ songs, you are certain you know her. The tunes might be raw combinations of country, blues, rock and folk. They might be visited by all sorts of spirits – lost loves, friends who have suffered tragic ends, even Robert Johnson –— but their one constant is Williams herself. She is the ghost who haunts her own music.

“What I’ve noticed about some other songwriters –— they don’t go to the depths,” says Williams. “You can’t be afraid to deal with your demons. You’ve gotta go there to be able to write.”

The night Williams played the Bluebird with Prine and Harris, Lucinda’s father, Miller Williams –— the poet at Bill Clinton’s second inaugural ceremony and the author of The Ways We Touch —– was also in attendance. After Lucinda sang the title track from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road –— a wrenching account of childhood –— her father came up to her to say he was sorry.

“I didn’t know what he meant, and he said, ‘That song’s about you. Didn’t you realize that?'” says Williams. “I was just trying to paint a picture, but he recognized me in the song. I was the child in the back seat, about four or five years old. Looking out the window. Little bit of dirt mixed with tears.”

And was he right?

“Yeah,” says Williams softly. “Yeah, he’s right.”

In Williams’ music, as in her life, someone is always moving on. More often than not, that person is Williams herself.

The house that Williams rents with her boyfriend and bass player, Richard Price, sits on a large lot, two doors down from Emmylou Harris, in an affluent section of Nashville. It is a charming three-bedroom place, set back from the road by a big, overgrown yard. A long gravel drive loops behind the house, and Williams comes to the back door to let you in. Throughout the afternoon, the CD player provides a walking tour of Williams’ influences: Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan, Gregg Allman, John Lee Hooker.

Williams seems slightly nervous, but as the day slides by, it becomes clear that this is simply her way. Both in work and in life, Williams sweats the little things.

“I’ve been accused of being a demanding perfectionist,” she says. “But who cares, even if I am neurotic? The end result is the art. Is Bob Dylan neurotic? Was van Gogh neurotic?”

Except that van Gogh cut off his own ear. Williams laughs. “OK,” she says. “He’s not a good example.”

And so, during the course of the afternoon, time compresses. There are uneasy silences, usually followed by a smile that lets you know this process is not easy on Williams.

“There is a sweetness and a vulnerability that she has kept from the world at large,” Miller Williams says, and when you spend time with Lucinda Williams, you know exactly what he means. He is saying that, on her records, Williams is brash and willful, but in person she must be handled with care. She is the fragile one, yet Williams spends most of her time making sure that you are OK.

Williams’ favorite expression is “bless your heart,” and in a few days’ time, she repeats the phrase over and over. If a friend says something nice –— “bless your heart”; if she is surprised by the kindness of a gesture –— “bless your heart”; if someone seems uncomfortable or embarrassed –— “bless your heart.” It is as if Williams takes care of herself by ministering to others.

“There’s a real challenge in being able to feel good and feel good about feeling good,” says Williams. “In my song ‘Like a Rose’ [from Lucinda Williams], there’s a line that says, ‘It’s OK to feel good/That’s the way it should be.’ That’s me saying that to myself.”

Later, Price mentions the same song as the one that best describes Williams. “‘Like a Rose’ is like reducing a fraction down to its simplest form,” says Price. “It is an expression of someone willing to open themselves. If you get to know Lu, after a while she’s a very open person. Some people can handle it, and some people can’t.”

So, as Williams invites us into her house and walks us through her world, “Like a Rose” –— with its graceful country melody —– is the song that will provide the soundtrack.

The tour begins in the kitchen, then moves through a small office and into the living room. It is a well-kept home –— full of Southwestern touches, folk art and a collection of religious iconography –— and it is surprisingly domestic considering that Williams and Price haven’t been renting here long. She first arrived in Nashville in 1993 and bought a house there two years later, but, unsettled by the idea, she sublet it and moved back to Austin. Unhappy there, Williams returned to Nashville and rented an apartment. When that proved unsatisfactory, Williams sold her house and moved from the apartment to here. For Williams, the notion of permanence has never really taken hold.

Williams was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1953. By 1971 she had also lived in Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi; Atlanta and Macon, Georgia; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Fayetteville, Arkansas; New Orleans; Mexico City; and Santiago, Chile. Her father and mother (a former music major at Louisiana State University) had divorced, and Miller Williams gained sole custody of Lucinda and her younger siblings, Robert and Karyn. As Williams’ father accepted teaching assignments, the family would move from city to city almost yearly.

“There were some rough times in her early childhood,” says Miller Williams. “It wasn’t the itinerant nature. I think she felt that was a very rich part of her growing up. There were family problems in her early years. I think she is still dealing with those, as a lot of people are.” He pauses. “She was raised restless and rootless, in a sense – rootless in terms of the geography. I don’t think she was ever rootless in terms of the heart.”

From the beginning, Williams’ heart belonged to writing. At six she was writing short stories and poetry. By her teens, Williams would sit in her own living room, entranced by visiting writers like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski. She discovered Bob Dylan and decided she wanted to be Joan Baez. “Long hair, sandals, singing protest songs and hanging out with Bob Dylan,” says Williams, still sounding like a wide-eyed girl. “I wanted to be around thinkers.”

In tenth grade, Williams was kicked out of a New Orleans high school for participating in a civil-rights protest (Williams’ godfather, George Haley, is the brother of author Alex Haley and a friend of Miller Williams’ from their days in the civil-rights movement), but by that time the die had been cast. She eventually went to the University of Arkansas on two separate occasions but dropped out both times, finally taking a job singing in a New Orleans folk bar.

“I remember calling my dad and saying, ‘I know I’m supposed to come back to school in the fall, but I really want to stay and do this,'” says Williams. “He understood. That was the turning point.”

Williams headed for Berkeley, California, but found the scene that she idealized had died. The same happened when she arrived in New York, just as the punk scene was fading. “I just missed everything,” says Williams. “All the sudden I was just in bars, hanging out with musicians. I always hoped it would be like the Sixties folk movement. That was the world I wanted to be in, but by the time I got old enough it didn’t exist anymore.”

And so she kept moving: New Orleans, Berkeley, Houston, Austin, New York, Los Angeles. Today, of course, Williams lives in Nashville. The plan is to stay at least two more years because Price has children in town from a former marriage. “I’m pretty comfortable,” she says. “But I get restless. I want to move to the desert. I have this urge to be out there. It’s pulling me. I want to go out to the desert and just live in a little adobe place.”

If Williams’ home in the world at large is confusing, it’s nothing compared with where she fits into the musical landscape. She is possessed of one of the most distinct voices in music —– a powerful soprano that is sometimes angelic, sometimes rough and all too knowing —– yet it’s as though by being equally fluent in rock and country, Williams has been continually banished from one to the other, left to wander the spaces in between.

Then again, what would you expect from a kid who grew up on the folk rock of the Sixties and lived in a house where her poet father loved the music of Hank Williams? Not to mention that Williams considers her discovery of the blues a seminal moment in her life. Put it all together and you come away with Williams’ magic: spare narratives propelled like rock songs but dripping with swampy Southern blues and country.

“People didn’t know how to market me,” says Williams of her inability to break into the music business. “I fell into the cracks.”

Playing professionally since 1970, Williams honed her craft in that decade in Houston (a scene that spawned Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith) and Austin, where she was surrounded by songwriting greats like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. In 1978 and 1980, Williams put out a collection of blues and country covers, Ramblin’ on My Mind, and an album of originals, Happy Woman Blues, on Folkways Records, yet it wasn’t until 1988, after she had moved to Los Angeles, that she finally got a budget large enough to record professionally.

“At that point I was getting a little frustrated,” says Williams. “I was getting ready to move back to Austin. It wasn’t like I had all these options. That’s what people don’t understand –— how long it took me to get a record deal.”

It was Lucinda Williams, released on Rough Trade, that brought Williams a small but dedicated following and made her, after eighteen years in the business, a songwriter of note. Yet once again her tales of bum relationships, hard living and sexual longing were too country for rock radio and far too frightening for Nashville. When Patty Loveless first decided to cover Williams’ “The Night’s Too Long,” she was met with resistance because the lines “I’m gonna find me one that wears a leather jacket and likes his living rough” and “He leans against the bar, his shirt’s all soaked with sweat” were too risqué.

“They seem to have a problem with body parts in Nashville,” says Williams. “Patty Loveless was also thinking about covering ‘Something About What Happens When We Talk,’ and the powers that be thought the lyrics were too much. There was a line, something about ‘going back down South, my only regret is I never kissed your mouth.’ Again, the body-part thing. ‘Sweat,’ ‘mouth’ – it’s just too graphic.”

And yet it is Nashville that Williams calls home – for the moment, of course – and it is Nashville that embraced Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s version of “Passionate Kisses,” a song that Williams never thought would fly on country airwaves.

“That is what’s paying the bills,” says Williams. “I really have Chapin to thank for all of this. It just goes to show that they don’t always know what they’re talking about.”

It’s midafternoon when Price returns from the grocery store bearing beer.

“Honey, why’d you get cans?” yells Williams from the living room.

Price pops his head out of the kitchen. “They’re tall boys,” he says.

“But why didn’t you get bottles?” asks Williams.

“They don’t make tall-boy bottles,” he answers.

Williams sighs. “Well, bring in one of those little things above the sink –— a couzie, those things that bikers use,” she says. “We’ll have to show the Yankee how we do things.”

Price walks to the other room and returns with a Harley-Davidson beer holder. “Yee-haw,” yells Williams and then, unable to help herself, she bursts out laughing.

Clearly this is a different Lucinda Williams from the one you meet on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That Williams is not nearly as hospitable. She introduces you to friends who are not long for this world, reveals her most intimate romantic longings and continually drives you down lonely Southern highways. Just looking at the song titles lets you know you’re about to embark on a journey through the South: “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” “Lake Charles,” “Greenville,” “Jackson.” Williams’ songs read like a travelogue.

“I’ve been defensive about being a Southerner,” says Williams. “There have been a lot of misperceptions that I’ve encountered. Any time anyone deals with those kinds of barriers or prejudices or stereotypes, it makes you want to delve into that area more, feel good about it.”

Yet Williams’ South is not one of sunny childhood memories. In fact, Car Wheels is the best collection of melancholy songs in years. They are gorgeous songs – full of rich detail and sung with heartbreaking power – but they are also decidedly dark.

“When I write about something, I’m not in it,” says Williams. “When I’m really depressed —– which happens quite a bit; I’m a moody person —– I shut down. There’s this whole idea that you’ve got the blues and you’re going to write. Bullshit. When I feel really bad, all I want to do is sit in front of the TV with the remote control and check out.”

And still, the results of Williams’ comfortable distance are plenty grim. There is “Drunken Angel,” about songwriter Blaze Foley, a friend of Williams’ who was gunned down in an argument in Texas; and “Still I Long for Your Kiss,” a romantic paean whose title is self-explanatory. With Williams, each new heartache sounds fresh.

“Do I relive songs?” she says. “Yeah. Every time I sing ‘Lake Charles,’ I feel like I’m going to cry.” In that song, we watch Williams drive from Lafayette to Baton Rouge in a yellow El Camino, listening to Howlin’ Wolf. The man next to her is gone now, a former love who died of liver failure. It seems everywhere Williams takes us, there is sadness. “It might be a wistful nostalgia for something that once was,” she suggests.

You reel off a list of songs –— “Lake Charles,” “Concrete and Barbed Wire,” “I Lost It” —– and tell her that even the song “Joy” isn’t particularly joyful.

“That’s true,” says Williams. “‘Joy’ is about someone that fucked me over.” You ask Williams to name a happy song on the album. She pauses for a long time. Finally she says, “Nobody writes happy songs, for God’s sake.”

The first time Williams recorded Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was in 1995, in Austin, with her longtime guitarist and producing partner, Gurf Morlix. After completing the entire record, however, Williams wasn’t content. “It’s hard to explain,” she says. “Something was missing.”

Williams had gone to Nashville to duet with Steve Earle on his song “You’re Still Standing There” (from the album I Feel Alright), and when she heard the sound quality of her voice, she was certain its raw tone was what her own record lacked. So she decided to simply rerecord a few of her vocal tracks with Earle producing, and . . . “Boom,” says Williams. “We got on a roll. Everything sounded so great and cool and edgy. So we ended up recutting everything.”

Just like that, Williams’ first version of her album was scrapped. If that was the end of the story, it would not be uncommon. Artist makes album; artist is unhappy with album; artist remakes album. The trouble is that this was the second straight record that Williams had completed and tossed. Her previous release, Sweet Old World, had been recorded, rerecorded and bounced from record label to record label. Just like Car Wheels, the recording process took three years.

“But what’s more important, getting a record out or making sure it’s right?” asks Williams.

To Williams, the answer is clear. After the initial rush of excitement with the Earle sessions, Williams –— again —– was not satisfied. Pushed to the limit, Morlix quit. Suddenly, the core of her longtime band was history. Soon after, saying he needed to go on tour for his own record, Earle was gone as well. Yet, still Williams wanted something else, something more.

“She is very hard on herself,” says Miller Williams. “But, of course, she can’t be hard on herself without being hard on Steve Earle at the same time. She would not deny the fact that she has a compulsive need to have things perfect.”

And so Williams pulled stakes and headed to L.A., to another recording studio and yet another producer. This time Williams enlisted veteran E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan. Williams claims that she kept the basic tracks from the Earle sessions (“the meat and potatoes,” she says) and simply had Bittan and a host of new musicians add finishing touches. Which isn’t actually the case. “We redid most everything,” says Bittan.

It was a tense period in which executives from American Recordings (which was originally going to release Car Wheels) were clamoring for a finished product. “Lu was really under the gun,” says Bittan. “She’s somebody that hasn’t really spread her wings completely yet. She’s still in the position of feeling that she has to prove herself. She needed to come up with a real serious record. Couple that with her insecurities and it was very, very difficult for her.”

At the time, a New York Times Magazine reporter was in the studio, and his account of the pain of recording left Williams devastated. “It just blew me out of the water,” says Williams. “It made me seem like this neurotic nut.” Bittan, however, calls the article “an excellent piece, really representative of what was happening.” He continues, “What Lu really needed was somebody to just listen to her. I had to gain her trust and let her see that I respected her, which was easy to do because I do respect her.”

In the end, Williams left L.A. with her longtime band disassembled but with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road finally intact. It had taken three years and three cities to get right. Williams headed home to master the record. On the final day of that process –— the last moment of her album’s birth —– a tornado ripped through Nashville.

We pile into a black Ford Explorer and head out just as the sun is setting. The destination is a small club where Williams hopes to see Geoff Muldaur, a blues and folk musician (and exhusband of Maria Muldaur) who rarely plays live but whose early-Seventies recordings had a great impact on Williams. As we drive, the cicadas are out in Nashville – a phenomenon that occurs once every thirteen years – and the air rings with the eerie, high-pitched wail of the bugs’ mating call. Price is behind the wheel, Williams at his side. Neither seems to notice the continuous screaming of their city’s insect population.

The two have been a couple for three years now, and there is an ease to their relationship that reveals itself in the pace at which they live. Time moves a few fractions slower; deadlines are not firm commitments but negotiations. Price reminds Williams repeatedly that, like him, she is a child of the Sixties – a generation he proclaims full of artists and thinkers, and whose way of life is guided by different principles from those of others.

“Lu was born to do this,” says Price, explaining Williams’ music. “In a spiritual sense, you’d think of Jesus saying you’re born with a gift. Are you going to hide it in the field or are you going to take the gift and go out and make it multiply? She is one of those.” Williams smiles shyly as Price speaks. “I just like to sit back and watch her,” he says. “She’s a trip to watch be who she is.”

For her part, Williams talks of the space Price provides, how he’s not threatened by the idea of her career cresting to a new level and, of course, his commitment. If you have listened to Williams’ music, you know that she’s not only been jilted but has endured a lifetime of unrequited love –— although she was married very briefly in the mid-Eighties to Long Ryders drummer Greg Sowders. Looking back, says Williams, her marriage barely seems like part of her life.

“I just thought, I don’t know, he was a nice guy, and he was good to me, and he was fun,” says Williams of the union. “You just find yourself in a situation sometimes. I was impressed with the fact that here was someone who wanted to make a commitment. I was nervous about it, but I just went into it anyway. I’ve always had a hard time saying no to people, whatever it might be.”

As we grab a table at the Sutler, yet another small songwriting hub in Nashville, fellow songwriters and musicians continually pop by the table to pay their respects. Williams handles the attention with mixed emotions, happy to be included but visibly uncomfortable with too much attention. Once the fuss is over, we sit and watch Muldaur’s set quietly. When he finishes, a few friends stroll over to offer Muldaur congratulations. Williams keeps still at the table. Finally, as the crowd around him clears, Williams approaches.

“Hi, you probably don’t remember me, but we met once in Los Angeles,” she begins. Muldaur looks at Williams with a sideways smile. “What are you talking about?” he says. “Of course I remember you. Come on. Where’s your self-esteem, girl?”

It has been three years since Lucinda Williams has written a single song.

“I haven’t really sat down and tried,” explains Williams. “It’s hard to put into words. I’ve just been stressed out a lot lately around getting this record out. And going through the band breaking up. I have to get past all this before I can write.”

Recently, Williams wrote letters to every person —– hundreds –— whom she has listed in her address book. When she tells you this, she says, “I think it’s a good sign that I’m getting ready to write again . . . . Don’t you?” You’re not sure how to answer.

It is difficult to imagine anyone with a more pronounced combination of sweetness and vulnerability than Williams. If her songs are reflections of her life, and if we connect to the incredible ache in her voice, it is because every syllable rings true –— the joyful and the sad. Miller Williams reveals that the happiest he sees his daughter is when she’s with family but that she does not seem truly fulfilled unless she is working on her music, although the process, he adds, leaves her more tense.

Williams lives with many of her songs for years before they come. Her song “Little Angel Little Brother” – a message to her brother, whom she loves, but from whom she has been distanced –— took almost three years to write. Songs germinate. Emotions take time to reveal themselves. It is not an easy process.

“It all comes from inside your head and your perspective,” says Williams of her writing. “We don’t have to all stay alcoholics and drug addicts and stay in bad relationships in order to be good artists. That’s stupid.”

Right now, Williams is in the midst of the most important record release of her career. You know she will begin writing for the next album eventually. How long that will be is uncertain. All we know is that for the time being, Lucinda Williams has given us a breathtaking album. Bless her heart.

In This Article: Coverwall, Lucinda Williams

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