Lucinda Williams has never been the belle of the ball to the gentry of Nashville country music. Her bubblegum has too much gravel in it, she sweats without shame, there’s cycle grease on her hands and the sunburn on her neck is too evident. The country music industry, nurtured through infancy by the Carter Family, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, once known for its close relations among the salt of the earth, has been strangely unable to accept a native daughter.
“Nashville is so straight,” Williams says in a recent interview for Billboard magazine. “I guess I’m sort of considered an outlaw here. They used to write grittier stuff.”
With a voice as smooth as oak bark, especially in her early songs, Williams carries on the outlaw tradition of Johnny Cash, representing her own generation of rural southern America, singing songs from the heart of a poor Louisiana bayou community. Like many traditional old-time ballads, Williams’ songs are about hard living, mistakes, loss and love through every kind of disaster. Her simple stories are lit with somber clarity and melancholy good humor, like the stories of Flannery O’Connor. Some touch a deep knowledge of how hard life can be. “Pineola,” about a brother’s suicide, from Sweet Old World, is as straightforward in its grief as hand-sawed planks on a coffin, and as defiant as any song from the Civil War.
Grown up in the Elvis Presley generation, Williams caught the fever early enough to hone a fine edge on her voice. When she sings to her brother: “I see you now at the piano / Your back a slow curve / Playin’ Ray Charles and Fats Domino / While I sang all the words,” you can believe that girl sang the songs dreaming she could fly. With hints of Ray Charles and Otis Redding, Williams’ lyrics blend a calling gospel build-up with storylines akin to Chuck Berry’s mix of blues and country. Her love songs own the tempered understanding of a flesh-and-blood woman keeping her self-respect intact through hard times.
Williams reached the peak of commercial success four years ago with the release of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. It won her a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, boosted her sales, and tangentially raised her standing in the recording industry. The recording, produced by Steve Earle, features the muscular blues guitar of veteran sideman Charlie Sexton, who also toured as Bob Dylan’s reined-in guitar player over the last few years. The music on Car Wheels is fuel-injected compared to the four-cylinder pace of Williams’ previous recordings. She punches her vocals hard on nearly every verse so as not to be drowned out. The honky-tonk bravado that has become one of her trademarks is present throughout the recording with a vengeance, but most of the melancholy tenderness and intimacy of songs like “Big Red Sun Blues,” “Prove My Love” and “Which Will” is missing from this disc. On “Lake Charles,” the lyrics recall an old familiar character with the sincere empathy that makes Williams’ best ballads classic, but the raucous edge of the accompaniment strains against the gentle simplicity of the lyrics. Her earlier band was able to achieve an extraordinary harmony with the singer and the songs through perfectly understated folk accompaniments. The most beautiful laughter is not flamboyant, they seemed to say, The deepest sorrows not conceited.
Williams’ 2001 release, Essence, is a fairly thorough departure from her past inclinations. The recording shares common ground with Emmylou Harris’ wistful, breakthrough masterwork, Wrecking Ball. Guitarist Bo Ramsey, who many will recognize as the creative partner of Greg Brown for the past 10 years, brings an extraordinary diversity to these new tracks along with Charlie Sexton. Together they launch Williams’ minimalist, Zen poetry into overdrive with multiple layers of guitar loops, blues and atmospheric droning where there used to be “the quiet beyond the music.” Williams had better be eating her Wheaties. On the title track, a steroid-driven grunge love anthem, Ray Charles morphs into a close approximation of Liz Phair. “I Envy the Wind” (pronounced “I e’vy”) and “Blue” share the helplessness and self-indulgence of Neil Young’s disheveled love songs on Tonight’s the Night. “Bus to Baton Rouge,” a journey back to the singer’s childhood home, is easily one of the finest Louisiana ballads Williams has ever written. It remains to be seen whether Williams can fly the high-octane spacecraft she has built. At the moment, she’s just trying to get it into orbit.