OUR subject this week was rejected in 1980s Nashville as being ‘too rock for country’ and in Los Angeles as being ‘too country for rock’. I don’t give a hoot what category she comes under; I just think Lucinda Williams has made some great records.
Her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is never far from the steam-powered radiogram-cum-cocktail cabinet in Ashworth Towers, and is rightly regarded as a classic.
But first things first.
Lucinda Gayle Williams was born in 1953 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her father Miller Williams was a poet and literature professor while her mother Lucille Fern Day was a keen amateur pianist. Miller had the birth defect spina bifida which was passed on to his daughter, thankfully not in a severe form. She told the New York Times: ‘In some cases it means you can’t walk. For me it is a weakness in the back. I get tired standing a long time.’
Miller’s appointments as a visiting professor meant the family never stayed long in one place until they settled in Arkansas, where Lucinda attended the state university in Fayetteville and learned to sing the blues. In her early twenties she moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where in 1978 she made her first album, Ramblin’ on My Mind, a collection of old cover versions. It failed to find favour with the public, as did her second, the self-penned Happy Woman Blues, in 1980. At one point, Lucinda was forced to make ends meet by becoming a sausage saleswoman in department stores. ‘I was hired to stand there with a little grill thing and grill the samples and stick a toothpick in each one,’ she says. ‘I did not want to be doing that.’
She moved to LA, where she played the clubs and built up a fan base without managing to interest major record labels (owing to the aforementioned ‘country or rock?’ conflict). It was the London-based Rough Trade company which finally realised her potential and in 1988 released her critically lauded LP, Lucinda Williams, produced by her guitarist and then partner, the piquantly named Gurf Morlix. Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis said: ‘We were big fans of the Southern literary tradition. We recognised that Lucinda was writing serious songs, but with the wit and humour of real rock’n’roll.’ I would add that she had a great voice, bright and girlish yet earthy and full of emotion.
The album kicks off with I Just Wanted To See You So Bad, followed by a real beauty, The Night’s Too Long. I’ve always loved the verse that goes: ‘And with her back against the bar, she can listen to the band. And she’s holding a Corona. And it’s cold against her hand.’ Corona being a Mexican brand of beer, in case you were worried.
After a four-year hiatus Lucinda and Murf were back in the studio to record Sweet Old World, an album about sadness and loss. Again it was hailed by the critics and again it failed to set the charts alight. Emmylou Harris, who recorded the title track for her album Wrecking Ball, said of Lucinda that she was ‘an example of the best of what country at least says it is, but, for some reason, she’s completely out of the loop and I feel strongly that that’s country music’s loss’.
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone’s ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm cradled in your arm
Didn’t you think you were worth anything?
Lucinda has said that Emmylou’s version is her favourite cover of any of her songs, but I prefer the original.
A lovely surprise is the final track, a cover of Nick Drake’s song Which Will, from his 1972 album Pink Moon. Nick’s story is of course another tragedy, which I will get round to soon.
After another six years, and an acrimonious break-up between Lucinda and Gurf (Morlix, Horlicks, there’s got to be a limerick there somewhere), came the big breakthrough.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, on the Mercury label, won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album and more importantly for the singer went gold, eventually selling almost a million copies. The Village Voice critics’ poll named it best album of 1998. It was produced by Bruce Springsteen’s keyboard player Roy Bittan.
Right from the off, with the twangy Right In Time, it’s clear that Lucinda has found her sound, the perfect blend of rock and country. The voice conveys a mixture of wistfulness, regret . . . and lust. A New Musical Express reviewer wrote that she ‘transfigures American roots rock into a heady, soul-baring and, would you believe, unabashedly sexy art form’.
Next comes the title track followed by 2 Kool 2 Be 4gotten, which is better than the juvenile text-language title would suggest. Drunken Angel, Concrete and Barbed Wire, Lake Charles, so it goes on with not a dud track to be had. Still I Long For Your Kiss was released as a single and featured in the Robert Redford movie The Horse Whisperer.
Car Wheels is a great record which Lucinda has never surpassed. Her next album, Essence, was more heavy-handed with the sexiness factor and suffered as a consequence, in my view. However she is still on the scene at the age of 66, touring the UK right now, and is the proud possessor of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association.
Her secret? A generous on-stage dose of . . . tea. She told the New York Times in 2009: ‘Lately, I’ve switched from Grand Marnier to herbal tea. I was drinking the Grand Marnier because it coats your throat, but it’s also real strong. After a while it gets in the way of your performance. And it’s fattening as hell.’