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That all changed with 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. On the surface, the CD was just another collection of Williams' literate and emotionally charged narratives. But the music's soulful mix of country, blues and rock pushed the planets into perfect order, and the CD went gold and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Suddenly, Lucinda Williams was big time. Time and Rolling Stone deemed her the best songwriter in America, and list-happy VH1 put her on its roster of the top 100 women in rock.
Lucinda Williams, superstar?
"No, I still feel like an underdog," she says from the L.A. hotel she currently calls home. "That feeling never really goes away. I don't feel like a star. I hate to even use that word."
Williams figures she's unfazed by her recent run of success because she spent so many years adapting to her cult-hero status. Hovering beneath the radar evolved into a lifestyle that stuck when the radar eventually found her.
"I still have the same friends," she says. "I still hang around the same people. I still go out to bars and see bands play. I do the same things I always did. From a logistical standpoint, success has helped a lot. I can pay the bills. But anybody will tell you that."
And anyone with an ear for songcraft will tell you that the belated music-biz hosannas tossed at Williams are right on target. The six albums she's recorded over the past 23 years show a consistent talent for putting lyrics to melodies with a storyteller's touch. Her sense of image and timing is often subtle but always potent, enhanced by an economical way with words and a willingness to let evocative descriptions carry a song's heavy freight. Whether she's writing about wanderlust families ("Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"), affection-deficient romantics ("Passionate Kisses") or self-destructive musicians ("Drunken Angel"), Williams takes the listener inside the scene and lets the picture tell the story.
On her most recent album, Essence, released last year, Williams again displays her gift for narratives, most notably on "Bus to Baton Rouge," a next of kin to the more region-specific travelogues on Car Wheels. But other cuts on Essence come off as more personal, as if Williams shifted her point of view from third person to first and turned her camera into reflective glass. The title cut, for example, is like an unedited entry from a lust-filled diarist: "Sweet baby you're my drug/Come on and let me taste your stuff," Williams sings/moans, before emphasizing the point with a well-timed "Please come find me and help me get fucked up." Williams exposed herself in similar fashion on "Right in Time," the rawest cut on Car Wheels, but "Essence" ratchets up the rawness, and the album never lets loose. Williams says authoring her own vulnerability comes easy, even when translating such private moments onstage in front of strangers.
"It's very cathartic," she says. "I like making people think and making them go, 'Wow.' Pushing people's buttons a little bit--I like getting a reaction out of people that way. I get immersed in it. Sometimes, like when I'm singing that line in 'Right in Time,' about how I lie on my back and moan at the ceiling--I enjoy that. I like that little 'ooooh,' shock-value thing."
As the daughter of a poet (her father, Miller Williams, read at Bill Clinton's second inauguration) and a lifelong student of the arts, Williams also recognizes that sometimes the most effective self-expression pushes comfort zones.
"The stuff that's worth listening to is all like that," she says. "Go back to the traditional blues stuff; listen to those lyrics. They're pretty direct. Bands like the Doors and the edgier stuff, Lou Reed, not to mention the poets--they didn't censor themselves. That's not what poetry is about. Real art is self-expression. And I don't draw the line between poetry and visual art and songwriting. To me, it's just another form of artistic expression. I don't sit there and think, 'Oh, this won't get played on the radio if I do this.' That has nothing to do with art."
But being played on the radio has everything to do with getting one's self-expression to the masses. And Williams concedes that little if anything on the airwaves these days constitutes honest art.
"I don't know why there's so much crap out there. For some reason this society tends to endorse mediocrity. I mean, how many people do you know personally that you can't talk to about their innermost feelings because they can't go there? And they'll do anything to avoid it. They'll change the subject, or drink too much, or get into some kinda addiction thing just to avoid dealing with the truth. People are so afraid of dealing with things."
Critical reaction to Essence has ranged from glowing to generally positive, with only a smattering of gender-issue questions regarding lines like, "Kiss me hard/Make me wonder who's in charge." Williams says she mostly hears from people who've rekindled romances or connected with new loves through listening to the record. She finds the responses are often as personal as the CD's material--with some curiosities thrown into the mix.
"I had this one interviewer guy, I think he was in Germany, and you know how Europeans are, they're much more direct about this kinda stuff," she says. "And he asked, 'Were you lying down in bed when you did these vocals? Did you have the microphone in bed with you?' He was like, 'Theez eeez a horny record.' I'm telling ya, the reaction has just been hilarious."
When not evoking images of orgasmic liaisons with microphones, Essence carries a moody introspection extended by long guitar lines that shimmer and float above the melodies. Think Neil Young's Tonight's the Night gussied up by über-producer Daniel Lanois--especially since Williams points to Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, produced by Lanois, as "greatly influencing" Essence, which includes Dylan vet Tony Garnier on bass and one-time Neil Young drummer Jim Keltner.
Essence co-producer Charlie Sexton is another Dylan link. Williams brought Sexton (Dylan's current lead guitarist and unofficial bandleader) on board to play second guitar, but after production problems developed with the original tracks--cuts involving musicians who'd returned to the road--Sexton saved the day, and likely the album, by filling in the blanks and adding enough new ideas to earn co-producer credits. Williams, who's been known to feud with producers, says she "didn't think that much" about turning Sexton loose in the studio. "I approach things very organically," she says. "And in this case, I said, 'Go for it.'"
Because Essence moves at a more languid pace than the breakthrough Car Wheels, it may not win Williams as many new fans. And corresponding commercial success isn't likely to push Williams into a considerably higher tax bracket. But she is coming off another Grammy, this time for her performance on the gospel-stomping "Get Right With God," the most up-tempo of the CD's tunes, and the album's critical acclaim will no doubt keep Williams' career at a place she couldn't imagine in her lower-rent, cult-goddess days.
"It's not what you think it's going to be like," she says of success. "But that goes without saying for anything in life. By the time you get to a certain age, in your 40s, everybody's different than they were in their 20s. But I certainly remember thinking, 'Oh, if I just had a record deal, everything would be great.' It used to be if I just had a gig, my life would be great. It went from that to, 'Boy, if I just had a record deal, I wouldn't have to work a day job.' And then once you get that, it's something else--'Oh, if I just had this person in my band.' So it's all relative. You just live in the moment, 'cause you don't know what's gonna happen next."