Lucinda Williams - Biography
For many, Lucinda Williams is the performer who virtually defines the outline of the all-encompassing label “Americana.” In that ill-defined, broad-based category that is less a genre than a grab-bag, her friend (and erstwhile Nashville neighbor) Emmylou Harris may be her only peer. Williams’ literate, economically penned songs draw their musical inspiration from a variety of native genres – folk, blues, country, R&B. Over the course of her fertile career – during which she has won three Grammy Awards and been nominated for eight more -- she has melded those diverse strains into something distinctive and original, using roots music as a backdrop for her personal, often nakedly honest compositions about desire, passion, loss, and hope.
Williams sings in a sometimes raw, sometimes honeyed Southern drawl, and her music has drawn praise for its detailed evocation of the Southern landscape. Yet her compositions are not works of a narrow regionalism; in their high pitch of emotional intensity they consistently attain a universal note. As an artist, she exists somewhere beyond category, like her inspiration and sometime concert co-star Bob Dylan. Her father, poet Miller Williams, said in the liner notes for one of her early albums, “All these years later, the world still doesn’t quite know what table Lucinda’s work belongs on. She doesn’t fit neatly into any of the established categories. She’s still a genre to herself, and she always will be.”
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Jan. 26, 1953, Lucinda Williams lived her early years on the move. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she and her brother and sister traveled with her father as he worked at a succession of academic jobs through the American South and in Chile and Mexico. He famously took responsibility for her education in 1969, after she was chronically suspended from high school – once for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance – and brought her up on a master list of 100 great books. Growing up, she was exposed to her father’s circle of literary friends, who included Charles Bukowski, James Dickey, and Flannery O’Connor.
Lucinda also inherited her father’s love of music: He was a devoted Hank Williams fan, while she naturally gravitated to Dylan and traditional folk performers. She began singing and playing the guitar at the age of 12; after the Williams family settled permanently in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1971, the blues became an increasingly important influence on her.
She began her prolonged musical apprenticeship in the mid-‘70s when she moved to Austin, Texas, then the site of the fertile “cosmic cowboy” explosion that was turning Willie Nelson and a host of other alternative country performers into national stars. When that scene waned, she relocated to Houston, where she began writing and performing in the company of such like-minded acoustic-based singer-songwriters as Townes Van Zandt, Nancy Griffith and Lyle Lovett, who were honing their skills at the local club Anderson Fair. Scuffling, she learned her trade, but she was forced to return home to Arkansas in 1977 after the onset of nodes on her vocal cords briefly threatened her singing career.
In 1978, the opportunity arose to release an album on Folkways Records, the New York label that had been a forge for the urban folk revival of the ‘50s. The company would still issue the occasional album by a new folk performer – if the performer could pay for the recording costs. Williams cut her Folkways debut Ramblin’ (1978) in an afternoon at Malaco Studios, the facility of the like-named blues and Southern soul label in Jackson, Mississippi. The LP was something of a throwback to an earlier folk era: acoustic covers of blues by Robert Johnson (who accounts for three of the album’s 14 tracks), Memphis Minnie, and the Memphis Jug Band, plus folk and country standards by Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, and the Carter Family.
Williams briefly moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, in search of a world that no longer existed there. She later told writer John Morthland, “I had this whole romantic image of New York and the folk scene and community in the Village. By the time I actually got there it was after punk and people walking down the street…weren’t happy or romantic or anything like that. I was too late, and I didn’t stay long.”
She took a large step towards asserting her own musical identity when she returned to Houston to record her second Folkways album, Happy Woman Blues (1980). This time, the songs were all Lucinda Williams originals, and they were performed in an eclectic roots music style that borrowed from country, blues, and Cajun music. The material is the work of an artist still finding her footing; however, one song, “I Lost It,” would reappear on her breakthrough major-label release – a mere 18 years later.
Williams continued her journeyman’s existence for several years, bouncing from city to city, playing low-paying gigs, and supporting herself with menial jobs. In 1984, she settled in Los Angeles. She cut a demo recording for CBS Records, who, in the words of writer Bill Buford, “didn’t know what it was and had no idea how to sell it: it was too much like country, according to the rock-and-roll executives; too much like rock and roll, according to the country executives.”
Finally, in 1988 – a decade after her recording debut – Williams achieved a national profile with an unlikely release. Rough Trade Records, the English punk label whose roster included The Smiths, Scritti Politti, and Young Marble Giants, gave Williams $15,000 to record an album. The resultant collection, Lucinda Williams (1988), was cut in two-and-a-half weeks with her working band – guitarist and co-producer Gurf Morlix, bassist (and licensed chiropractor) Dr. John Ciambotti, and drummer Donald Lindley.
The set received universally rapturous reviews. It introduced Williams’ artistic persona of broken-hearted longing and reckless rapture, and contained several songs that became linchpins of her live repertoire – “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” “The Night’s Too Long,” “Big Red Sun Blues,” “Changed the Locks” (later covered by Tom Petty), and the single “Passionate Kisses.” (In 1994, Williams received her first Grammy Award for the latter number, for best country song, after Mary Chapin Carpenter turned it into a top five national hit.)
The unexpected success of Lucinda Williams attracted the attention of the major labels that had formerly spurned her, and she ultimately signed with RCA Records, whose president Bob Buziak was an avowed fan. However, Buziak lost his job in a round of musical chairs at the label, and Williams’ new material was worked over by an unsympathetic producer who tried to “contemporize” her rootsy style. (Williams later told the New York Times, “I had an A&R guy who’d never even heard of Blonde On Blonde! Can you believe that? He had no idea where I was coming from!”) Angry and dispirited, Williams got a release from her RCA contract.
Williams rejoined Buziak at Chameleon Records, an independent label operated by the scion of Chicago’s wealthiest real estate family. The protracted recording of Sweet Old World (1992) marked the beginning of Williams’ reputation as an arch-perfectionist in the studio; she made two more complete passes at the songs, finishing the album with co-producers Morlix and Dusty Wakeman and her working band at the same small facility where she made Lucinda Williams.
Though she was predictably unhappy with the result, Williams delivered a collection of striking, intimate new songs on her second album. The material included the lovely ballad “Something About What Happens When We Talk” and a pair of indelible tracks, the title number and “Pineola,” that were inspired by the suicide of a young poet she had been involved with in Arkansas years before.
The agonizing making of Williams’ next album was the stuff of legend. Its completion, from writing to release, occupied more than five years and involved the labor of four producers; sessions took place in three cities; and the label that funded the album sold the finished master to another company.
Following Sweet Old World, Williams signed with American Recordings, the LA-based label operated by producer Rick Rubin, which made a major splash in the early ‘90s with its series of pared-down albums by Johnny Cash. After debuting her new material in 1994-95 in her new base of Austin, Williams made an initial attempt to record it in a studio there, with Morlix producing. She was dissatisfied with the results, and, after singing on a session for Steve Earle’s “You’re Still Standing There,” she decided to re-cut the songs in Nashville with Earle and his production partner Ray Kennedy, known collectively as “the twangtrust.”
The endlessly extended Music City dates – cut with Morlix and the rest of Williams’ working band – did not proceed peacefully, and Earle eventually walked out of the studio, swearing to never work with Williams again. (While Earle would later mend his fences with her, the sessions ended Morlix’s long professional relationship with Williams.) Still finding the music incomplete, she brought the tapes to Los Angeles, where producer-keyboardist Roy Bittan (of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band) added additional tracks, drafting such players as guitarists Charlie Sexton, Johnny Lee Schell, and Bo Ramsey. Rubin supervised the final mixing of the album, but Mercury Records would purchase and issue the long-awaited Car Wheels On a Gravel Road (1998).
The album proved to be Williams’ career watershed. It used stops along the Southern highway – Lake Charles, Greenville, Jackson, and points in between – as a psychological and emotional road map. By turns erotic, yearning, and melancholy, Car Wheels included such Williams standards as the title track (a look back at her peripatetic upbringing), “Drunken Angel” (her homage to the eccentric Austin songwriter Blaze Foley, who was shot to death in 1989), “Joy” (later covered by soul singer Bettye LaVette), “Still I Long For Your Kiss” (co-written with her onetime guitarist Duane Jarvis), and “I Lost It,” plus her popular version of “Can’t Let Go,” written by Randy Weeks, formerly of the LA country-rock band The Lonesome Strangers. Car Wheels became Williams’ first album to reach the charts and her first gold record, and it received a 1998 Grammy as best contemporary folk album.
Its follow-up, Essence (2001), was completed in a relatively brief three years, and began Williams’ continuing association with Universal Music’s Nashville-based roots label Lost Highway. The album’s sleeve information reflected an uneasy genesis: Credited to co-producers Williams, Charlie Sexton, and engineer Tom Tucker, its basic tracks were recorded by guitarist Bo Ramsey. The music was performed by a top-flight band that included Sexton and bassist Tony Garnier of Bob Dylan’s road group, Ramsey, keyboardist Reese Wynans (of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble), multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, and top session drummer Jim Keltner.
The album entered the US top 30, but some reviewers were perplexed by its sound, which eschewed the blatantly rootsy style of Car Wheels for a hazy, highly atmospheric approach that heightened its series of interior monologues. But its introspective, adult writing easily equals the level reached on its predecessor; its standout tracks include the feverish title cut, “I Envy the Wind,” “Blue,” “Out of Touch,” “Reason to Cry,” and the rollicking “Get Right With God” (a Grammy winner as best female rock performance).
Williams had spent several years in Nashville, but she had grown weary of the town’s inbred music scene and its assembly-line methods, so early in the new millennium she returned to Los Angeles. She was invigorated by the city’s then-booming country/roots community, and became a frequent drop-in guest at local club shows. The new locale also boosted her creative output: Between 2003 and 2008, she issued three studio albums and a two-disc live set.
World Without Tears (2003) was recorded in record time, under novel circumstances. The album was co-produced by Williams and Mark Howard, whose credits included engineering Bob Dylan’s Grammy-winning resurgence Time Out of Mind. Williams’ set – which introduced guitarist Doug Pettibone, the mainstay of Williams’ next three studio albums -- was essentially recorded live in a studio jerry-built by Howard at an old mansion, the Paramour, in LA’s Silver Lake district, and was released with minimal overdubbing. The album made some surprising turns into bash-it-out rock (“Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,” a song inspired by The Replacements) and even rap (“Atonement,” “Sweet Side”); its core lay in such accounts of romantic loss as “Overtime,” “Those Three Days,” and “Minneapolis.” The album rose to No. 18 on the charts; its repertoire formed the basis of Lucinda Williams Live @ the Fillmore (2005), recorded during her subsequent West Coast tour.
Williams’ next two albums, which were very different in tone, were mainly drawn from a group of more than 30 songs written in a burst during 2006-7. The somber West (2007), largely informed by the passing of the singer’s mother and the end of a torturous love affair, was co-produced by Hal Willner, and featured such unexpected touches as the subdued use of strings; such aching inward-looking songs as the title track, “Mama You Sweet,” “Learning How to Live,” “Unsuffer Me,” and “Where is My Love?” were complemented by the rampaging “Come On” and the meandering groove of “Wrap My Head Around That.” It outdid World Without Tears commercially, peaking at No. 14.
In the fall of 2007, Williams played a series of dates in small LA and New York venues at which she performed her albums from Lucinda Williams through World Without Tears in their entirety; guests at the shows included Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, John Doe, Jim Lauderdale, David Byrne, and Shelby Lynne. Each evening’s performance was recorded, with CDs pressed for sale the same night; they remain available through Williams’ Web site.
The essentially light-hearted Little Honey (2008) reflected Williams’ personal happiness: The set was co-produced by her fiancé-manager Tom Overby, a former music distribution executive, and West’s engineer Eric Liljestrand. Its key tracks included a pair of romantic testimonials, “Real Love” and the romping, bluntly sexy rocker “Honey Bee”; “Little Rock Star,” a number directed at the self-destructive stars Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty; “Jailhouse Tears,” a country dialog with Elvis Costello; and a surprising album-closing cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top.” It became Williams’ first album to reach the national top 10, entering at No. 9.