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Lucinda Williams

Born January 26, 1953 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, has went from a cult country-blues starlet to a universally accepted folk-rock visionary. The daughter of an English lit professor/poet, WILLIAMS’ childhood was spent in such diverse locations as Texas, Mexico City and the Chilean capital, Santiago. Influenced primarily by both the literature and music of the deep South, WILLIAMS began playing in her teens around the clubs of Houston (where the likes of TOWNES VAN ZANDT and GUY CLARK had founded a burgeoning folk-country scene) and Austin.
By the release of her debut album RAMBLIN’ ON MY MIND (1979) {*5}, she was already on the way to becoming a seasoned performer and the record’s trad country-blues standards – mainly borrowed from ROBERT JOHNSON, A.P. CARTER, HANK WILLIAMS and Memphis Minnie – reflected her apprenticeship. Smithsonian Folkways would subsequently re-promote the LP as “Ramblin’” in the early 90s having duly signed her the previous decade.
In contrast, the following year’s HAPPY WOMAN BLUES {*7} comprised entirely of original material backed up by a full acoustic band. After a brief flirtation with the Greenwich Village folk scene and a further period down south, she eventually settled in L.A. where she concentrated on writing, performing and building up a permanent band.
Deflecting regular major label offers, WILLIAMS’ insistence on full creative control finally led her to a deal with UK indie Rough Trade, who issued the long-awaited LUCINDA WILLIAMS (1988) {*8}. While the music married the unmistakable influence of L.A.’s rock’n’roll heart with her trademark take on rootsy Americana, many of the lyrics centred on her recent divorce (from The LONG RYDERS’ Greg Sowders) and the likes of `Passionate Kisses’ and `The Night’s Too Long’ made for compelling listening. The former track was later covered by MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER, while PATTI LOVELESS took the latter into the country charts. WILLIAMS herself sold her work by the sheer hard graft of touring rather than any singles success, although her stock with critics and roots fans had never been higher. The collapse of Rough Trade certainly didn’t help raise her profile, however, and after a doomed dalliance with R.C.A. Records, she again signed to an indie label Chameleon. The result was 1992’s SWEET OLD WORLD {*8}, a roots-rock master-class which managed to be both accomplished and inventively diverse, even pulling off a NICK DRAKE cover (`Which Will’).
Incredibly, her label went bust yet again and WILLIAMS moved on to Rick Rubin’s American imprint before settling at Mercury. She’d also based herself in Nashville and 1998’s acclaimed CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD {*9} was arguably the best thing to come out of music city in a good few years. Grittier than the likes of SHERYL CROW and certainly a lot more credible than SHANIA TWAIN, the record was roundly praised by both the rock and country camps, cropping up in many end of year polls and enjoying a prolonged stay in Mojo magazine’s playlist.
While her profile remained lower than it really should be, WILLIAMS’ unquestionable musical integrity continued to endear her to critics and roots aficionados alike. That integrity was perhaps even more evident on ESSENCE (2001) {*7}, a much more personal, delicate record that explored human frailty and possibility with a keenness and sympathy rarely witnessed on record. A brave step after the forthright country-rock of “Car Wheels…” but one which long-time fans will relish.
WORLD WITHOUT TEARS (2003) {*7}, meanwhile, was probably an even braver step, as raw and visceral a statement as she’d yet put together. Sonically stark and roughly split between brooding balladry and driving, cathartic country/blues-rock, the record made no concessions whatsoever to either commercial considerations or the expectations of her fans (or at least a proportion of them) given her career path thus far. Lyrically unflinching in the dissection of love’s destructive power and obsessional dark side, the likes of `Those Three Days’ laid bare her soul like never before.
Having marked time with a live set LIVE @ THE FILLMORE (2005) {*7} – recorded on three nights in the San Franciscan hotspot – her third studio album for Lost Highway, WEST (2007) {*6}, took her all the way into the Top 30 in both States and Britain. The Eric Liljestrand and Tom Overby-produced LITTLE HONEY (2008) {*6} fared even better and careered into the Top 10, a record that was rooted in Americana electric-rock from blues to country and folk to rock. Ditto the DON WAS-produced BLESSED (2011) {*7}, a record that was augmented by Liljestrand and her other half Overby.
2014’s epic double-set, DOWN WHERE THE SPIRIT MEETS THE BONE {*8}, saw the rootsy lady take complete control by way of forming her own Highway 20 imprint. Reminiscent of another Heartland rock star, MELISSA ETHERIDGE, Lucinda bows to the country side of her wide-ranging spectrum, while her unpretentious, no-holds-barred rock’n’roll gives her an edge over other Hard Rock Café exponents. But for one curtain call cover (a 10-minute take of JJ CALE’s `Magnolia’), her most fluid and organic tracks flow through `Compassion’ (from a poem penned by her dad), `East Side Of Town’, `Something Wicked This Way Comes’ and `Wrong Number’.
Preserving and maintaining the elixir of cool-country with her own rock recipe, Lucinda took the unusual step of premiering her follow-up double-set, THE GHOSTS OF HIGHWAY 20 (2016) {*8}, in Britain, a few weeks before its launch on home turf. Thirty-seven years since her debut, the American picker expanded on her “Route-sy” horizons by cutting a swath through the long and arduous, 1500-mile road-trip on Interstate 20 from South Carolina to Texas. Again co-produced with hubby (since 2009), Tom Overby, it’s as if she’d stopped off at over a dozen life-affirming lay-bys, opening the barn doors for her devotees to travel back in time to when WOODY GUTHRIE and others walked these spiritual stamping grounds; the only cover song came from SPRINGSTEEN’s `Factory’, a dirge she’d played live in 2013. Excavating an emotional and earthy country croak y’all worthy of her male counterparts, TOM WAITS and STEVE EARLE, Lucinda was completely calm and in control on everything from the opening `Dust’ to the marathon finale of `Faith & Grace’. One of its shortest pieces, `If There’s A Heaven’, dealt with mortality as with the BADALAMENTI-esque, back-to-back `Death Came’ and `Doors Of Heaven’, but it was in the recesses of `Louisiana Story’ (at 9 minutes) and the haunting title track that WILLIAMS conjured up her most poignant on-the-road rhythms.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it was the concern for her re-hashed version of “Sweet Old World” – simply entitled in 2017, THIS SWEET OLD WORLD {*7}. Okay, there were a few nooks and crannies to tweek, and giving her backing band (including guitarist Stuart Mathis) orders to rough the feathers up a little was paramount to its very being. If one was already familiar with its progenitor classic, then one would know its err… roots (and best bits), and here, with a re-arranged track listing and four bonus tracks (including John Scott Sherrill’s `Wild And Blue’), sweet Lucinda came up trumps.
© MC Strong 1999-2010/BG-GRD/GFD // rev-up MCS Feb2014-Oct2017

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