Lucinda Williams' voice is raw and ragged, less a beautiful instrument than a time-honed tool. The hand that wields it demonstrates both a craftsman's restraint and artistic abandon with songs driven by bare-wire passions, steeped in keenly drawn details and characters. Thirty-five years after her first release — a collection of old blues and country covers entitled Ramblin' — Williams has established herself as perhaps our finest female roots-rock artist, channeling the spunky spirit of Wanda Jackson alongside Townes Van Zandt's poetic poignancy.
Success took two decades to arrive. Long a critical darling, Williams patiently — sometimes obsessively — pored over her music before breaking through commercially with her 1998 thrice-recorded masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Since then, the pace has picked up. She's released five studio albums since the millennium, equaling the output of her first 20 years. Country-blues is always close to her heart with rock close behind, but across any album you'll find a range of musical and lyrical styles.
These five tracks from a three-decade career illustrate some of her favorite themes and trace Williams' growing skill and assurance, culminating in her last release, 2011's Blessed.
"Lafayette," Happy Woman Blues (1980)
The lead track on Williams' first album of originals, "Lafayette" is a gamboling, Cajun-tinged country number with an air of Hank Williams. It's shaped like an ode to the town of Lafayette, not far from where she was born in Lake Charles, La. Like her debut, the album was recorded for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and explores a similar acoustic roots approach. It's very much a traditional sounding fiddle-driven song, though the blend of styles is adventurous and ear-catching. Like a long-lost friend she rhapsodizes at ending her exile, cheering the music that "sounds so good to me, I just might dance until three." In the last verse, Williams gets a little randy, confessing about the boys of Lafayette ("they sure do look good to me"). She promises an unapologetic aggression and abandon that reappears throughout her catalog: "I'm your girl, Lafayette. I'm gonna hang around you, eat that gumbo and rollin' and tumble, and do crazy things every night."
"Passionate Kisses," Lucinda Williams (1988)
Williams spent some time in the wilderness after Happy Woman Blues. After shuttling between Austin and Houston, she moved to Los Angeles in '84 where she attracted some major label interest and even signed a development deal with CBS that never really developed. While in L.A. she met fellow Texan Gurf Morlix. He became her guitarist, producer, and important collaborator until a falling-out during the long-drawn Car Wheels on a Gravel Road sessions. "When I first heard her voice I went, 'Woah. That's real,'" recalled Morlix a few years ago. "And she had really good songs."
Morlix produced the self-titled LP, which finds Williams backed by a full, electric band. "Passionate Kisses" itself is anchored to a jangly guitar riff mining a rock vibe not far removed from early Tom Petty. The song's lyrics present Williams anxiously weighing her expectations, and wondering whether "I want too much? Am I going overboard to want that touch?" She wants to scream at the night, "Give me what I deserve," yet for everything she lists as her due, you sense she'd sacrifice it all for passionate kisses from her lover. Mary Chapin Carpenter would turn the song into a minor hit in '93 and the following year win a Grammy for her performance, while Williams received the Grammy for Best Country Song.
"2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten," Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
Williams' prior two discs (1988's self-titled disc and 1992's Sweet Old World) won critical accolades opening the door for this album's success. But it was hard won. Williams endured label troubles in the intervening years, and tussled with Morlix as they worked the songs up from scratch again after she shitcanned the first attempt. After Morlix's departure, Steve Earle stepped in, without whom, Williams has said the album might never have happened. They re-recorded the songs a third time, which was apparently the charm. Williams' perfectionism was vindicated, though even Earle is quoted as calling it "the least amount of fun I've had working on a record." (Indeed, before its release Williams brought in E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan to do additional production.)
"2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" opens with a line that sounds more jaded than the Hollywood paparazzi: "You can't depend on anything really," she sings, over a shuffling backbeat. "There's no promises; there's no point." She confessed seven years ago at a Town Hall performance that the song was written with a New Year's Day hangover inspired by two antediluvian photography books, Juke Joint: Photographs by Birney Imes and Appalachian Portraits by Shelby Lee Adams. The song's a testament to time's inexorable push, pithily captured as a "junebug versus the hurricane." The same fortune shadows our sacrifices for immortality she suggests, referencing Robert Johnson in the first verse. The last stanza turns to a lover ("thought I'd always be his valentine") who asks if she'd leap to their death with him. She balks, "No way, baby, that's your own death you see?"
"Righteously," World Without Tears (2003)
Car Wheels was the most produced album Williams had ever made, and the polish was something she was trying to get right with her obsessive re-recording. The 2001 follow-up Essence was starker and more delicate. On World Without Tears Williams returned to the raw-boned intensity of her earliest albums. This simmering, insistent blues album is wracked by the pain of relations. Its 13 songs survey how love begins innocently and mines transcendence until a leak springs and suffocates everyone inside. Every song on the album explores a similar dynamic, perhaps none more succinctly than "Righteously."
A slinky droning blues rocker powered by an insistent, infectious rhythm, "Righteously" vacillates between plaintive and bitchy. You can feel the cracks forming as she castigates her love's need "to prove your manhood to me, constantly," and wonders "Why you wanna dis me after the way you been kissin' me?" The middle third recounts his breath and hands on her body getting her "all worked up like that," as the guitar leads builds toward a break that evokes Jimi Hendrix's "Castles in the Sky." When she returns to earth, she asks point blank: "Flirt with me, don't keep hurtin' me, don't cause me pain. Be my lover, don't play no game, just play me John Coltrane."
"Seeing Black," Blessed (2011)
After years of heartbreak Williams found love with her manager, former record exec Tom Overby. The album that followed their marriage, Blessed, feels more hopeful than prior releases. While her songs have always been about resilience, the undercurrent always felt more cursed than fortunate. The album's most powerful track is inspired by the death of her friends Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse), who killed themselves in late 2009 and early 2010 respectively. "How did you come up with a day and time? You didn't tell me you'd changed your mind," she asks over Elvis Costello's prickly, stinging guest guitar. "Did you wax the deck to make it easier to slip when you made the decision to jump ship?"
Three years ago I spoke to her about the song. "That's something that those of us who aren't going to kill ourselves will never understand," she told me in an interview three years ago. "That's what the song is exploring. Trying to imagine those last final moments. What's going through a person's mind? There isn't one little voice that comes in and goes wait?"