Lucinda Williams (b. 1953) is a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Lake Charles, Louisiana. She is the eldest daughter of renowned poet Miller Williams. The family moved many times during Lucinda’s childhood, as her father pursued a career as a literature professor. In 1970, they settled in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Professor Williams became a permanent member of the University of Arkansas faculty. By then, Lucinda was playing guitar, writing songs, and just beginning to perform publicly.
Compared to most artists profiled here, Lucinda’s road to popularity and financial success was lengthy. She recorded an album of country and blues covers (“Ramblin”) in 1978, followed by her first album of original songs (“Happy Woman Blues”) in 1980. In the early eighties she moved to Los Angeles, California, where her reputation began to grow. In 1985, she began a decade-long collaboration with guitarist Gurf Morlix, which yielded two albums, the self-titled Lucinda Williams in 1988, followed by 1992’s Sweet Old World. Though the twelve song Lucinda Williams did not register significant sales, the album’s sharp songwriting was noticed by industry insiders. Tom Petty covered “Changed The Locks”, and in 1993, Mary Chapin Carpenter scored a major hit with “Passionate Kisses”, which earned Williams a Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1994.
Lucinda Williams (b. 1953), songwriter, vocals, guitar
A Short List of Lucinda’s Collaborators:
Gurf Morlix (b. 1951), lead guitar, multi-instrumentalist, producer
Doug Pettibone, lead guitar, lap steel guitar, musical director
Jim Lauderdale (b. 1957), singer, songwriter, guitar
Robert “Bo” Ramsey (b. 1951), guitar, producer
Kenny Vaughan, lead guitar
John Jackson, lead and slide guitar
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
I learned about Lucinda Williams in 1998, by reading the Rolling Stone magazine review for her new album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. I’ve been a subscriber to Rolling Stone for over twenty years. The way Robert Christgau described her resonated with me, with phrases like “near absolute mastery of pop song craft” and “Williams is such a perfectionist that she recorded it from scratch twice”. Lucinda Williams is the only artist I ever fell for before hearing her sing a song. I knew Mary Chapin Carpenter’s version of “Passionate Kisses”, more evidence I would like Lucinda’s songs. I wasted little time in acquiring Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and proceeded to wear it out during the next few months, listening to the many new favorite songs over and over.
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is an electric guitar record, with most songs featuring two electric guitarists riffing in duet, or separately offering subtle fills to augment the melody. The sound is reminiscent of the glory days of the Rolling Stones, and albums like Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers, the sound and production perhaps a bit less ragged. There isn’t much soloing; the album presents the template versions of each song. Songs like “Joy” are good vehicles for extended soloing in concert, while the structure of sexy songs like “Right In Time” will always be performed faithfully.
For a few years after the release of Car Wheels, Williams toured with a six or seven piece band to recreate the big guitar band sound, most often with Kenny Vaughan and John Jackson as soloists. She followed up the success of Car Wheels in relatively short order, taking only three years to create and release Essence, a worthwhile successor. Since then, Lucinda has released albums of new songs every two or three years, a more typical pace. She streamlined the band, perhaps for financial reasons, and still tours regularly as a quartet, with guitarist Doug Pettibone the featured soloist during most tours.
I saw Lucinda in concert a few times during this period, usually in venues too large for a sense of intimacy. There was one special concert — on July 23rd, 2001 at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. It’s an odd venue, in a narrow building on the corner of Burnside and SW 14th Avenue. The irregularly shaped room holds a couple thousand people, with the stage set in a corner. It’s a general admission theater, standing room only, except for about hundred seats in the rear of the theater, so you can work your way close to the stage, by arriving early or by being aggressive. We arrived early. I had an old friend visiting from the Bay Area; Carolyn and I made our way up close, just a few feet from the action.
Lucinda’s band was a septet that night, with John Jackson and Bo Ramsey on electric guitars. In addition, her longtime friend Jim Lauderdale opened the show and then joined the band on second acoustic guitar and backup vocals. From the very beginning, the mood was electric down close. Everybody was dancing and moving; this one girl was in a state of pure elation, probably enhanced by one or more chemicals; she had a huge smile as she convulsed wildly on the edge of self-control. The audience roared its approval after every song; after a few songs, Lucinda looked around and noted in her mellow understated way, “Wow. I wish every audience was like this one.”, before launching into the next number. After the set and a short break, Lucinda and Bo Ramsey came out and performed “Down The Big Road Blues” as a duet. Bo shuffled across the stage towards Lucinda as he completed his solo. The house was on fire. Then the unimaginable happened; one of the support personnel says something to Lucinda, who then reports that a fire alarm has been pulled, and the theater must be cleared. And that was it. After a few moments of disbelief, we gathered up, walked down the stairs, out the door, and into the cool summer Portland night.
Carolyn was passing through town, on her way across the country for some reason I can’t recall. I don’t know if she ever made it; I never talked to her again, ending a sometimes close, often uneasy and always ill-conceived sixteen year friendship.
The “Schnitz”, better known as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is the best music hall in town, but the Crystal Ballroom is a great venue for that thrill when you’re close to the stage, jostling for position and bouncing around to your heart’s content. I’ve only heard that kind of roar in concert twice; the other time was seeing Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, also at the Crystal.
Why is Lucinda Williams Ranked in the Top Twenty?
Among the ten artists with the most songs in my iPod collection, two of them appear to be outliers, personal favorites that found their way into the upper echelon. The other eight are in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, and seven are included in Rolling Stone’s list of the top 100 artists of all time, with Fleetwood Mac not earning that distinction. Los Lobos and Lucinda Williams are odd choices for my ten “best” artists, but the number of songs, and the number of stars awarded, is a fine way to identify the best. The high ranking of Los Lobos will be hard to justify, but I can make a good case for Lucinda Williams.
Lucinda is a fine looking woman, petite and pretty, but in an industry that values beauty so highly, she was not destined to be a Nashville country music star. Lucinda is a fine singer, with a voice capable of both emotion and nuance, but in an industry that values powerful voices over songwriters, she was never headed for the mainstream. She has an idiosyncratic presence on stage, rocking back and forth, often seemingly in a trance as she sings, her eyes focused on a single point of reference. She does not connect to the audience with her eyes; she does it with her music. Van Morrison is the same way; for many years he has worn sunglasses so he can close his eyes, and not bother with the charade of connecting with the audience through eye contact.
As music fans we embrace Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia as singers, even though their voices are not ideal instruments. Lucinda is similar, blessed with a less powerful voice capable of nuance and feeling. These are among my favorite singers, the ones who have something to say. Like Dylan and Garcia, her voice has grown weaker and a bit harsher with age. Here are two later career performances with her quartet, “Over Time” and “Fruits Of My Labor” from the album World Without Tears.
Still I Long For Your Kiss
Lucinda Williams uses simple words to evoke strong feelings and convey complex emotions. She is my singer for affairs of the heart more than any other, especially when it comes to heartache. There’s “I don’t want you anymore ’cause you took my joy”, when I’m mad and need to let off steam. There’s “I’ll get over you over time”, when I’m sad and missing somebody from the past. In “Crescent City”, Lucinda sings, “me and my sister, me and my brother, we used to dance down by the river.” It makes me wish my family was closer. But there’s also the happy, open sexuality of “Right In Time”, as Lucinda “lies on her back and moans at the ceiling”. The way you move is right in time with me. She has a gift for describing life’s challenges and pleasures in simple, memorable ways.
“Still I Long For Your Kiss” is a “grinder” song, neither a fast or slow tempo for dance. With the exception of the compound word “downtown” and the “shouldn’t” and “couldn’t” contractions, there isn’t a word over six letters long. I marvel at its simplicity, not to mention the big beat and the chiming guitars. In the video, check out Kenny Vaughan’s guitar solo:
“The days go by,
but they don’t seem the same
I cry and cry,
and I call out your name.
I go downtown,
I see your face,
Nobody around can take your place.
But you put me down,
And you turned me away,
Still I long for your kiss,
Still I long for your kiss.”
— Lucinda Williams
You Wait In The Car On The Side Of The Road
If Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is a Stones album, then Lucinda Williams is like an early Beatles album, with short little love songs played on quietly amplified instruments. Every song has merit, and as Robert Christgau notes, a leap forward in songwriting from her previous album, Happy Woman Blues. Artistically, it’s a long way from the person who covered female country blues songs only a decade before. Gurf Morlix plays the George Harrison role, with short, thoughtful guitar solos that fit, and never overwhelm. During the long peak of her career, Lucinda Williams worked slowly; her defining trio of albums from Lucinda Williams to Car Wheels taking sixteen years to create, inspiring to someone like me who needs time in hopes to creating something worthwhile.
“Side Of The Road” reminds me of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind”, a song about maintaining one’s independence within the bonds of love. In “Side Of The Road”, the storyteller needs to establish that distance, that space to think things through, whereas in “Gentle On My Mind”, the need to display one’s love and allegiance by superficial gestures is meaningless. No shackles, words or bonds; he returns because he wants to, because it makes him happy. “Side Of The Road” is the preamble to “Gentle On My Mind”; first we need the space to operate, then we decide what we want.
The second verse of this song, wondering if the people in the farmhouse are happy and content, slays me.
“You wait in the car on the side of the road.
Lemme go and stand awhile, I wanna know you’re there but I wanna be alone.
If only for a minute or two,
I wanna see what it feels like to be without you,
I wanna know the touch of my own skin,
Against the sun, against the wind.
I walked out in a field, the grass was high, it brushed against my legs.
I just stood and looked out at the open space and a farmhouse out a ways.
And I wondered about the people who lived in it,
And I wondered if they were happy and content,
Were there children and a man and a wife?
Did she love him and take her hair down at night?
If I stray away too far from you, don’t go and try to find me.
It doesn’t mean I don’t love you, it doesn’t mean I won’t come back and
stay beside you.
It only means I need a little time,
To follow that unbroken line,
To a place where the wild things grow,
To a place where I used to always go.
— Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams Song Notes:
1. In order, the best albums are:
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
Sweet Old World
In addition, clever fans will want a copy of the KFOG radio program of Lucinda performing before a small audience in Berkeley, California on September 26th, 1998, sometimes known as Too Cool To Be Forgotten. A first class performance featuring excellent sound quality and friendly narration by Lucinda. The following songs in the list come from Too Cool To Be Forgotten:
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Live)
Right In Time (Live)
Come To Me Baby (Live)
2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten (Live)
2. The highly rated performances listed above skew Lucinda’s position in the list of great artists. That’s OK; all that matters is the best possible music for the collection. It’s valuable to have good live performances to see how songs translate to the stage. The studio performances of “Still I Long For Her Kiss” and “Can’t Let Go” tend to sound better than live performances, while “Joy” and “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” come alive in performance. If you can’t acquire the September 1998 KFOG performance, the deluxe edition of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road has a full 1998 concert performance featuring the big band, plus a couple of tracks that didn’t make the album. These songs were added from this deluxe edition, available on iTunes:
Down The Big Road Blues
Still I Long For Your Kiss (Alt)
Metal Firecracker (Live)
Still I Long For Your Kiss (Live)
3. The following live performances are found on the expanded edition of Lucinda Williams:
Side Of The Road (Live)
Something About What Happens When We Talk (Live)
As of September, 2013, the release of a 25th anniversary edition of Lucinda Williams, complete with additional live and studio tracks, is imminent. I will augment the song list as needed. In this recent article for http://www.nodepression.com, Amos Perrine argues that Lucinda Williams is the first “Alt Country” album, a good place to draw the imaginary line. The timing also coincides with the emergence of the popular country music heard on major radio stations today.
4. “Over Time (Live)” is recorded from the Youtube performance presented in this blog.
“All I ask,
don’t tell anybody the secrets,
don’t tell anybody the secrets,
I told you.”
Lucinda Williams Songs:
Side Of The Road, Lucinda Williams ★★★★★
Still I Long For Your Kiss, Lucinda Williams ★★★★★
Passionate Kisses, Lucinda Williams ★★★★
Crescent City, Lucinda Williams ★★★★
Joy (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★★★
Something About What Happens When We Talk, Lucinda Williams ★★★★
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★★
Right In Time, Lucinda Williams ★★★
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams ★★★
2 Cool 2 Be 4-Gotten, Lucinda Williams ★★★
Can’t Let Go, Lucinda Williams ★★★
Metal Firecracker, Lucinda Williams ★★★
Joy, Lucinda Williams ★★★
Still I Long For Your Kiss (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★★
Still I Long For Your Kiss (Alt), Lucinda Williams ★★★
Out Of Touch, Lucinda Williams ★★★
I Just Wanted To See You So Bad, Lucinda Williams ★★★
Pineola, Lucinda Williams ★★★
Pineola (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★★
Right In Time (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★★
Disgusted (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★★
2 Cool 2 Be 4-Gotten (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★★
Over Time (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★★
Drunken Angel, Lucinda Williams ★★
Lake Charles, Lucinda Williams ★★
Metal Firecracker (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★
Lonely Girls, Lucinda Williams ★★
Are You Down, Lucinda Williams ★★
Essence, Lucinda Williams ★★
Reason To Cry, Lucinda Williams ★★
Get Right With God, Lucinda Williams ★★
Like A Rose, Lucinda Williams ★★
Changed The Locks, Lucinda Williams ★★
Side Of The Road (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★
Something About What Happens When We Talk (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★
Sweet Old World, Lucinda Williams ★★
Greenville (Live), Lucinda Williams ★★
Fruits Of My Labor, Lucinda Williams ★★
Over Time, Lucinda Williams ★★
Sweet Side, Lucinda Williams ★
Sundays (Live), Lucinda Williams ★
Nothing In Rambling, Lucinda Williams ★
Born To Be Loved, Lucinda Williams ★
I Lost It, Lucinda Williams ★
Greenville, Lucinda Williams ★
Jackson, Lucinda Williams ★
Down The Big Road Blues, Lucinda Williams ★
Bus To Baton Rouge, Lucinda Williams ★
Lafayette, Lucinda Williams ★
Happy Woman Blues, Lucinda Williams ★
Howlin’ At Midnight, Lucinda Williams ★
Sharp Cutting Wings (Song To A Poet), Lucinda Williams ★
The Night’s Too Long, Lucinda Williams ★
Big Red Sun Blues, Lucinda Williams ★
Am I Too Blue, Lucinda Williams ★
Price To Pay, Lucinda Williams ★
Me And My Chauffeur, Lucinda Williams ★
Six Blocks Away, Lucinda Williams ★
Prove My Love, Lucinda Williams ★
Come To Me Baby (Live), Lucinda Williams ★
Are You Alright?, Lucinda Williams ★
Those Three Days, Lucinda Williams ★
Passionate Kisses, Mary Chapin Carpenter ★★★★
Disgusted, Lil’ Son Jackson ★
Big Road Blues, Tommy Johnson ★
Down The Big Road Blues, Mattie Delaney ★★
Nothing In Rambling, Memphis Minnie ★
Me And My Chauffeur Blues, Memphis Minnie ★★
Chauffeur Blues (Alt), Jefferson Airplane ★
Come To Me Baby (Single), Howlin’ Wolf ★★
Masters Of War, Bob Dylan ★★★
Masters Of War (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★★
I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline), Howlin’ Wolf ★★
Cool Drink Of Water Blues, Tommy Johnson ★