It’s been 20 years since Lucinda Williams released her critically acclaimed album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Tonight at the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth, fans will see a VH1 Storytellers-style live performance of the full album accompanied by photos and video clips, as well as a second set of other favorites from her remarkable 40-year music career.
In many ways, Williams has had two separate music careers. One began in 1979 with Ramblin’ — a career that saw some success with her 1988 self-titled album. Her second career took off when Williams and outlaw country musician Steve Earle worked together to create Car Wheels in 1998.
Williams’ 40 years in the music industry is ultimately a testament to an artist’s refusal to compromise her artistic vision to conform to the demands of popular music and instead wait for the world to ready itself for what she has to offer.
“All the stuff that I used to listen to,” Williams explains, “like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and early Bob Dylan, the Band, and all that — they didn’t have anything called Americana back then, but the music business was different and it was a lot more open to different, experimental sounds.
“They just weren’t as concerned about the marketing aspect of it. At some point they just decided that if they couldn’t market it, they just weren’t going to release it.”
And it is for that lack of marketability that Williams spent over 20 years as an underground artist. The moderate success of her self-titled album was due in large part to the fearlessness of the label that released it.
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“I managed to make that Rough Trade album,” Williams says, “but that was only because this punk label out of England signed me. There was no Americana market that existed, and everybody kept telling me that my music fell through the cracks between country and rock. And it did. I got turned down by every label. But then everyone started acting like there was this new kind of music, and I was like, no, I’ve been doing this kind of music forever.”
Today, Williams is happy to have helped establish a marketable genre for young people who are starting out their careers with a musical style like her own, but she understands that even with the marketability of the genre, things aren’t easy for young musicians. While she was able to stick with it for 20 years before achieving the success Car Wheels brought, much of that was attributable to the economy and culture she cut her teeth in.
“When I was in the middle of the hurricane — if you will — of my life,” she explains, “it didn’t seem like that much time had passed. I was young and hungry. I didn’t have a manager or a booking agent. I was just living in Houston or Austin, playing at different little places, and creating a local following.
“I guess I always kinda knew it was going to pay off, but I think you always have to know that somewhere in the back of your mind. I didn’t let anything get in the way of that. I had an independent spirit and a lot of drive.”
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Williams admits that keeping that independent spirit alive “makes me kind of sad because of the way the economy is. Younger people now are blocked by the reality of just trying to make a living.”
She says when she was starting out in the early '70s, she lived in an efficiency apartment that cost $85 per month and could work a few days a week as a waitress.
“The worst thing is these artists who have all this talent and don’t do anything with it," she says. “The bottom line is that you can’t be negative about it. There are good people in the music business who are trying to do the right thing.”