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Nashville Scene Too Cool To Be Forgotten

Lucinda Williams perseveres and finds success

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Lucinda Williams can trace her behind-the-scenes struggles in the music business back to the early '80s, shortly after she moved from Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles. She'd been gigging around L.A. for a brief time, when she gained the attention of Peter Philbin, a top artists-and-repertoire executive with a major label. "He listened to my songs and said not enough of my songs had bridges," she recalls. "He told me I needed to go back to the drawing board, that I wasn't ready."

At the time, Williams recalls, she was crushed. "I'd never really been exposed to the music industry before that," she says. When she tells the story today, however, her eyes sparkle mischievously. For two of the songs Philbin picked out as incomplete are now two of the singer's most admired compositions. "He told me 'Pineola' needed a bridge and a chorus," she smiles. Today, she often opens her shows with the taut, blues-inflected rock song, which is about the suicide of a family friend.

"And he told me that 'Change the Locks' didn't have a bridge, and it needed one," she continues. Nowadays, she usually closes her shows with that song, another brutally terse, crunching guitar rocker about a woman who alters everything about her world so that she can put an ex-lover out of her mind. Tom Petty recorded and released the song two years ago, and it became one of his biggest radio hits of the '90s.

The clincher, for Williams, is that she never changed or added anything to the songs, despite Philbin's advice. "But I remember leaving that meeting with him and feeling so insecure about my songwriting," she says. "He was challenging me about all this stuff that I felt good about. But my fears only lasted a little while. I reminded myself not to overreact to one opinion."

In the years since, Lucinda Williams has remained true to her instincts, even when her stubborn integrity has been seen as neurosis. Rather than changing to suit the industry, she has let the industry come around to embrace her. And so it has. After more than a decade marked by artistic triumphs and creative strife, Lucinda Williams has finally started attracting the attention her one-of-a-kind songs have long deserved. With the mid-June release of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her first album to enjoy the promotional muscle of a major label, Williams has abruptly become one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of the '90s.

The singer's ascension has been anything but simple. Every article and review alludes to the six years that have passed between her previous album, 1992's fine Sweet Old World, and Car Wheels, as well as to the difficulties she has had with producers and record companies along the way. Her triumph, the articles often say, has not come without torment. The die seems to have been cast: She's another of America's troubled geniuses.

Williams sees it differently. A Nashville resident since 1993, the Louisiana-born, Arkansas-raised singer will admit that she's something of a perfectionist. But she also believes many of the media portrayals have been unduly one-dimensional and too quick to settle for a superficial telling of her story. "You can't really praise somebody's work and then criticize the process," says the 45-year-old Williams, relaxing in the Green Hills home she shares with her boyfriend, bassist Richard Price. "That's what's so ironic about all the criticism and comments I get about how I make records. I mean, who cares what happens in the middle? I think the music proves I make the right decisions."

That sense of herself--her dogged devotion to perfectionism--is never more explicit than when Williams is onstage. At her most recent Nashville performance, at 3rd and Lindsley on July 19, she started into the introductory chords of "Lake Charles," one of many standout songs from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. But she stopped before reaching the first words. She cracked a joke about the heat, smiled as the crowd laughed, then counted off the tempo and started the song again.

For Williams, stopping in mid-performance has become something of a concert trademark. She has done it so often, she says, that fans have started expressing disappointment if she makes it through a show without cutting off a song in frustration. Like Pete Townshend smashing his guitar, or Jerry Lee Lewis using the heel of his boot to bash out an emphatic piano chord, Williams' unwillingness to plow through a mistake encapsulates her musical personality in one simple move. It signifies how, for Williams, her artistry is inseparable from her anxiety and her drive for perfection.

"I don't like it if something doesn't feel right," she says of live performance. "If something is a little off, or it's not working for me, I'll say so. That used to be embarrassing, but now I make it work for me. I used to get flustered when it happened, but now I make a joke and say something like, 'Well, I guess the ice is broken now.' I'm not afraid to show I'm human."

That sense of humanity, and frailty, has helped to make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road a critical cause cl¸bre. Rolling Stone magazine heralded the record's release with a rare four-and-a-half-star review. The magazine followed that two weeks later with an in-depth story. Spin magazine also put her name on its cover, pointing inside to a lengthy article that crowned Car Wheels as "the year's best album." Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Details, Interview, No Depression--indeed, nearly every important pop-culture arbiter in America--have lavished immense praise on the singer in the last two months.

Williams has always been a critic's favorite. What's different about Car Wheels is that it's actually selling. Until now, the singer has never had an album break the top 200 of the Billboard pop charts. Car Wheels entered the charts at No. 65 after first-week sales of more than 21,000. Two months after its release, it has become Williams' first album to sell in the six-figure range. With positive reviews pouring in for her new tour, and with pockets of radio support in various urban markets, those sales are expected to keep climbing.

Should her songs receive the radio exposure they deserve, the rest of the country will learn what the critics already know: that Williams tells penetrating musical stories in a peculiarly personal way that manages to be achingly heartbreaking and honest, yet full of grace, hopefulness, and, most of all, deep humanity.

Take "Lake Charles," the song that she stopped and restarted in her recent Nashville concert. The lyrics carry many of her distinctive touchstones: the death of a friend, richly detailed references to the South, travel, a reference to music that moves her, and a slyly poetic moment of shattering sensitivity. The song is about an ex-lover, a man she describes as a lovely but lost and volatile soul who drank himself to death. In writing about him, Williams manages to eulogize him without resorting to the usual pathos that most songwriters would bring to the tale.

"He had a reason to get back to Lake Charles," she sings in the opening line. To a lazy beat punctuated with slide acoustic and electric guitars, Williams uses her parched, unfiltered twang to tell of a man who, though born in Nacogdoches, Texas, liked to tell people he was from Lake Charles, because he felt most at home in Louisiana. She recalls the two of them driving the Cajun backroads from Lafayette to Baton Rouge, blasting Howlin' Wolf in his yellow El Camino. Amid these telling details, she uses the chorus to switch quietly from remembrances of good times to a meditation on his death. As she does, her voice turns sweet and yearning: "Did an angel whisper in your ear/Hold you close and take away your fear/In those long, last moments."

It's encouraging to know that people are finally coming around to Lucinda Williams. But the singer's current success is in direct proportion to the heat she took last year in the nation's music press, where she was frequently portrayed as an indecisive prima donna. In gossip columns from Austin to Los Angeles to New York, and in various Internet chat rooms, stories circulated about Williams' supposed inability to finish work on Car Wheels. The stories arose in part from Williams' openness with journalists; while touring, she'd freely and willingly discuss the problems she was having with producers and with her label at the time, American Recordings. But as the album's scheduled release kept getting pushed back further and further, her frankness became a liability. The most stinging commentary about the delays came in a lengthy profile in The New York Times Magazine that ran in September of 1997, nine months before the album was released. Williams may now be able to shrug off the remarks, but for a while they hurt.

"What bothered me most about it was that there was no music for people to hear, so they couldn't hear the results of what I was struggling so hard for," she says. "It was a really slanted piece, about all my supposed neuroses in the studio. All of this stuff was implied about me, and I had nothing to show for it."

In that piece, and in more recent articles, too much of the blame has been laid on her, she says. "The truth is, I'm not the only person responsible for why it took so long," she explains. "A lot of it had to do with record-company politics, but no one ever talks about that. It's all been laid on me. But that's OK now, because the album is out, and it's good, and people are getting to hear it. And that is all that really matters."

Work on Car Wheels originally began in January 1995, in Austin, with Williams' longtime guitarist and coproducer Gurf Morlix. When Williams and American Recordings chief Rick Rubin were unhappy with the initial results, the work from the Austin sessions was scrapped. "A lot of the time was spent waiting on getting feedback from Rick Rubin," Williams says. "Even though Rick was executive producer, he was never in the studio with us. That created a lot of time problems. We'd record stuff, send it to him, and wait for him to have time to listen to it. That was a big hassle." Tension also arose between Rubin and Morlix, she says. "Gurf would be happy with something, but Rick wouldn't be happy with it," Williams recalls. "Rick fought with me on some stuff too.... But most of the tension was between Gurf and Rick."

After the Austin sessions were done, Williams and Rubin eventually decided to shelf the recordings. After recording a duet with Steve Earle for his I Feel Alright album, Williams decided to record the same songs in Nashville with Earle and his Twang Trust production team partner, Ray Kennedy.

Instead of ending the difficulties, though, the move created new ones. First was the breakdown of Williams' collaboration with Gurf Morlix, with whom she'd worked since 1987. Morlix started the Twang Trust sessions as guitarist, but within a month, he left the project in anger. After more than a decade as Williams' guitarist and musical partner, he still refuses to speak to his longtime friend and bandmate.

Their split is a shame, says Duane Jarvis, a guitarist who has worked off and on since 1989 with Williams and Morlix. "Gurf's role was tremendous. The combination of the two of them was just incredible. He played so well on her songs. He helped shape them--he helped her a lot with arrangements and her overall sound. So I have a sadness about what happened. I thought they were a great team. But you certainly can't fault Lucinda or the results she got."

Williams also laments what happened. "I don't regret doing what I needed to do," she says, choosing her words carefully. "But I do regret what happened with Gurf and me. I've tried to reach out to him in my own way. But Gurf is still working his stuff out in his head, and I'm giving him space to process it."

Unfortunately, the problems with Car Wheels still didn't end there. For the first two weeks in the Nashville studio, Williams says, the recording team clicked. "We really cranked them out," she says. "We were really on a roll." Then, as she started fine-tuning the songs, she butted heads with Earle. That extended the recording schedule, and time problems arose. Earle had a tour booked and had to leave. Kennedy had other projects scheduled for his and Earle's studio, Room & Board.

"We literally ran out of time," she says. "Obviously, I wanted to get the record done--it had already been a long time by this point. So I decided to book another studio. We ended up going out to L.A. The reason we hired Roy Bittan [a former member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band] is that he was familiar with the studio. The meat and potatoes of the record was done in Nashville with Steve and Ray. All we did in L.A. was put the icing on the cake."

She admits her decision created "a little bit of a problem between me and Steve. He was frustrated, and I was frustrated. He had some ideas he didn't have time to try. But now everything is cool."

But the producer changes and the split with Morlix weren't the only cause for delays in the release of Car Wheels. Internal problems at American Recordings forced further lags as well. "I finished work on this album in December 1996," she says. "After that, I just sat there with this record waiting on [American] to get it together. So the reason it took so long wasn't just me."

Eventually, as the American Recordings label began to disintegrate, Mercury Records stepped in and bought the rights to the record. "That was a good thing for the album too, so I'm glad it didn't come out earlier," she says. "That's part of why I don't understand all the criticism. I couldn't be happier with the end results of all this."

Of course, the success of Car Wheels makes the prolonged struggle easier to accept. Williams has been a critic's favorite since the release of her self-titled third album, originally released in 1988. It was on this record that her songwriting moved beyond acoustic-blues mimicry and into a self-assured, wholly personal style all her own. Emmylou Harris, who has recorded several of Williams' songs in the past, says the recognition is long overdue. "I think Lucinda has been one of the great overlooked artists of our time," she says. "I'm so glad to see that it looks like she's finally going to get heard. I really think this is a record that people will look back at and see as a turning point, not just for Lucinda, but for American music. This record is going to blow so many minds and turn so many heads and touch so many hearts."

These good tidings have put Williams, who is notorious for her self-doubting and self-questioning, in an uncharacteristically chipper, even self-congratulating, mood. At age 45, she's suddenly, unexpectedly popular.

Her newfound self-confidence shows too. For the interview, Williams appeared relaxed, friendly, and unusually open about discussing herself and her work. Even her home reflects her current serenity: A spacious, sunlit, two-story house on a tony block off Hillsboro Road, it's a more casual and more homey place than one might expect. Like Williams herself, the interior has a lean, desert-baked feel, and it's stylish in a way that mixes urban hipness and down-home casualness.

Despite feeling that she's been unfairly treated by the media, Williams is an unguarded interview. In person, she's more genial and down-to-earth than most profiles suggest. She's far from the terse, hard-living, brokenhearted, restless rambler that many stories suggest.

She acknowledges that her reputation is somewhat different. But that's mostly because her previous songs were written in the past, not in the present. "Someone asked me recently why I was attracted to abusive men," she says. "But that's not me now. I'm not like that anymore. I'm settled and happy. Sure, I've gone through a lot of bad relationships. But so has nearly everyone I know. A lot of people put themselves in those situations, especially women. I don't think I'm that different from anybody else."

But not everyone grew up with writers like Flannery O'Connor and Charles Bukowski dropping by her home. Miller Williams, the singer's father, is a well-regarded poet who teaches at the University of Arkansas and who read at President Bill Clinton's inaugural celebration. Because of her father's work and his own restless nature, Williams' family moved throughout the South while she was a child. Many Southern states--Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas among them--figure prominently in her songs. She acquired her sense of defiance early on: Her grandfather was a conscientious objector during World War I, and her father was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the '60s. In high school in New Orleans, Williams once refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as a statement against the war. She was expelled.

As an adult, she has continued her father's vagabond ways: She's lived on her own in New Orleans, New York City, Houston, Austin, Los Angeles, and, for five years now, in Nashville. "I'm in love with the South," she says. "I grew up around Southern writers, and I've always appreciated this region in a romantic sense that I probably got from being around all those literary types."

Even though she's enjoyed the financial rewards of having a country hit--Mary Chapin Carpenter ("Passionate Kisses") and Patty Loveless ("The Night's Too Long") have both had radio success with Williams' songs--she has never associated with Music Row types. "I don't like the one-sidedness of the country-music industry," she says. "What's the point of ignoring all these other cool, great, edgier artists?"

Instead, Williams identifies more with the city's alternative club scene. She's a fixture at local nightclubs, and when she's out hearing one of her favorite performers, she's consistently cheery and approachable--like any other music fan out for a night of songs and kicks.

"I try and go out and be a normal person," she says. "I think that's important. I don't understand artists who are reclusive; I'd be afraid of becoming alienated. I would really hate for all this to get where I can't go out."

"All this," of course, is the impending fame that finally seems to be within her grasp. She's much more familiar with disappointment--it's been with her for decades. Go back to any album or any period, and she can tell war stories. In fact, her last album, Sweet Old World, was nearly as troublesome as Car Wheels. It was originally recorded for RCA Records, but she didn't like the polished results of the initial sessions. The production made her songs too slick, she thought. She balked at putting the album out, so RCA cut her from its roster. She eventually rerecorded the entire album and put it out on an independent label, Chameleon Records.

"People seem to have forgotten that I had a lot of problems getting that record out too," she says. "Now they just say it's a good album."

Harris, a neighbor of Williams', says her friend has endured unfair characterizations in the press and within the music industry. "Maybe I'm getting too much into a feminist mode," she says. "But it seems to me that when a guy takes a long time to make a record, he's a genius. If a woman does that, it's a different matter. Lucinda has been beaten up for the last year about how long she took to do this record. I tend to pooh-pooh people who cry 'sexist' about things, but in the case of Lucinda, I really see a rampant case of it. Whatever road she had to take was the road she needed to take, because the record is a masterpiece."

Now that the record's out, Williams has assembled a new band. Her boyfriend Price plays bass, and Irishman-turned-Nashvillian Fran Breen is on drums. The guitarists are Nashville resident Kenny Vaughn and Iowa bluesman Bo Ramsey. Recently, singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, a longtime friend of Williams', has been joining them on tour, playing acoustic guitar and singing harmony. Jarvis, who recently put out his second solo album and currently leads his own band, says he will miss Williams' old group. "She taps into something few people can approach emotion-wise. She's that rare combination of being extremely literate and extremely emotional in her songwriting. She's written some of the best songs I've ever heard."

These days, Williams seems to have conquered many of her career obstacles. She's more comfortable onstage, she accepts the fact that part of her makeup involves taking time to get something right, and she's more than willing to embrace the acceptance she's finally achieving. Most important, though, she doesn't worry as much about what people think.

"I feel a lot more comfortable being me these days," she says. "I mean, I'm constantly told that my work is good. A lot of fans and a lot of other artists say my songs and albums mean a lot to them. Isn't that what's important?"

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