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The Boston Phoenix Poetry In Motion

The moving moods of Lucinda Williams

By Franklin Soults

JULY 13, 1998:  To call someone "an artist's artist" or "a musician's musician" is to fall prey to a cliché's cliché, yet there's no other succinct way to extol Lucinda Williams's gift to the world. It's not just that this Southern singer/songwriter is so damn good, but the way she's become so highly regarded by music-bizzers everywhere while producing and selling so damn little music. Her new Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) is just her fifth full-fledged album in a recording career spanning nearly 20 years. Over that time she's never broken into the Billboard charts, yet she's won the admiration of jaded industry bigwigs and purist indie types, mainstream Nashville stars and struggling folk artists, young 'n' cranky rock critics and old 'n' comfy music journalists. Outside the tiny "Americana" niche market, her rootsy mix of blues, folk, country, and rock may have less hit potential now than ever, yet her renewed mastery of that mix is exactly what makes Car Wheels such a bona fide rave among all those inside factions.

The release of Car Wheels -- Williams's first new CD in six years -- on June 30 was preceded by the reissue of an expanded version of the album that marked the height of her mastery. Although it was her third, she titled it Lucinda Williams, as if she knew it announced her arrival as an artist. Originally released on Rough Trade in 1988 -- a year that now marks the halfway point of her career -- the album earned her a songwriting Grammy a few years later when Mary Chapin Carpenter turned a key cut, the instant classic "Passionate Kisses," into a huge country hit. At the other side of the universe, the album also became the most unlikely disc to place in the 1995 Spin Alternative Record Guide list of "Top 100 Alternative Albums" -- at number 23, it even beat Hole's alterna-rock milestone Live Through This by two places.

Koch Records has made the most of the Lucinda Williams re-release. Aside from remastering the original two-track master tapes and padding the disc with some strong live cuts (originally from separate Rough Trade EPs), Koch added new liner notes featuring Williams's song-by-song comments, interspersed with short encomiums from assorted Nashville notables and a closing toast from Lucinda's father, the distinguished Southern poet Miller Williams. The plugs from Patty Loveless and the like underscore Lucinda's biz-wise status; Papa Williams goes a little further, offering a sweet explanation for both her success and her obscurity: she's "a genre to herself."

Uniqueness is a claim we all make for our most dearly beloved, and if there is always an element of truth to the fantasy, you can double that truth value for Williams, a woman who found a musical center within the circle of blues, folk, country, and rock that no one had quite located before. This place is difficult to define, but it's immediately recognizable to anyone who accepts the musical cross-breeding of the 1960s as part of his or her personal history or cultural heritage (think of folk-rock Dylan, country-rock Gram Parsons, blues-rock Clapton and Joplin). In other words, there's nothing novel about Williams's organic sound, only about the personal sensibility that led her to discover it, and the imprint she left on it once she found it.

At the time Lucinda Williams came out, both the sensibility and the imprint contributed to her obscurity far more than most critics were willing to concede. The sensibility was evident in her stubborn refusal to surrender creative control of her work, a refusal that kept her off the major labels that wanted to exploit her talents at the height of heartland rock's popularity in the mid to late '80s (think of everyone from Springsteen to Steve Earle). The imprint -- that is, the style of her sound -- comes down to a fragile and utterly guileless sense of longing. "Passionate Kisses" is nothing less than a declaration of every woman's inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. It may be less intense than anything on Live Through This, but it moves from the everyday to the ecstatic with an effortlessness that is, as Spin rightly has it, exactly two notches more sublime than Courtney Love's best shots. And like the best of the rest of Lucinda Williams (i.e., just about everything there), the song's proto-feminism is mirrored by the performer's plaintive yet plain vocals: the thin, unkempt, almost tremulous grain of her 35-year-old voice is just as moving as her wish list for warm food to fill her body and passionate kisses to fill her soul.

That same voice surely undercut Williams's appeal to a record-buying public corn-fed on sexiness or muscle or diva-esque refinement. In her most languid numbers, her quiet voice also undercut her music. These points were brought home to me around 1989, at a small bar in Buffalo, where I saw Williams perform for the first time. There was something heart-wrenching about her motionless, deadpan delivery -- an artlessness bordering on gracelessness. Yet she made barely a dent on the small cluster of fans standing at the front of the half-empty room. At the time I mistook her lack of projection for amateurishness, but an amateur would have at least faked it. Williams was by then a performer who had worked out who she was, to the point that she felt no need to hide anything -- including exhaustion (or indifference). That's also what set Lucinda Williams apart from the two Folkways albums she cut in her mid 20s, and from the mass of folk and roots-rock performers who make barely a ripple when they come and go. Even when covering Howlin' Wolf's "I Asked for Water (He Gave Me Gasoline") on Lucinda Williams, she sounded not like a genre to herself but like her own person.

Her career since then has seemed a mess, marked by albums recorded and never released, cross-continental housing moves, record-label hopping, and more -- but Car Wheels on a Gravel Road turns that mess into simple accrual. Lucinda Williams triumphs because it strips the artist bare; Car Wheels because it fills her out. Where 1992's Sweet Old World (Chameleon) was a set of minor variations on Lucinda Williams, this new release bears the weight of the full decade she has lived in between. Call it a period of growth or maturation, but that's not just a metaphor for the development of her art, it's a fact of her life. She's still every bit her own person, but now her own person is older and wiser.

For starters, the levels of songwriting, playing, and singing here are about as sophisticated as they get in pop music. In the album's first half, especially, the words are subtle enough to revive a cliché's cliché that would do her dad proud -- the notion that well-crafted song lyrics are poetry. Certainly Williams plays with the structures of language -- with verb tenses and viewpoint -- in ways you more commonly find in that rarefied art form. The soaring opener, "Right in Time," is a reverie about a woman masturbating while memories of a great old lover crowd her head. Once again he moves right in time as she moves through time with thoughts of him, and Williams's restrained, slightly breathy vocals make time stop at the close of each verse by reducing the line's long meter into three softly falling syllables: "Oh . . . my baby."

If this is poetry, though, it's a collective effort. Her musicians -- some new, like one-time collaborator Steve Earle and long-time Springsteen keyboardist Roy Bittan, others familiar, like long-time drummer Donald Lindley and guitarist Gurf Morlix -- match the lyrical devices with the kind of commentary that does her infamous perfectionism proud. Perhaps some of it does border on corn for the corn-fed public -- the touches of accordion on "Concrete and Barbed Wire" that rise ever so gently each time Louisiana is mentioned -- but those moments are offset by the cracks in Williams's voice and the roughness in her sound that make up the other side of her maturity. She turns aging into a strength. Without ever trying to force her material, she makes it tougher than she ever has. Just compare the new version of "I Lost It" to the one that appeared on her first album of all-original songs, Happy Woman Blues (1980, Smithsonian Folkways). Back then she was a loping folkie; now her solid backing guitar and waste-free vocals make the nostalgia for something she can't name feel lived.

All this toughness only makes the album's core of sadness resonate deeper, and there are counterpoises like this everywhere. A tough slow blues for a lost lover ("Still I Long for Your Kiss") is played against a gentle folk number in which the lover is tossed aside ("Greenville"); a smooth Southern rocker mourning a dead friend ("Lake Charles") is balanced by a chiming march angry at a senseless suicide ("Drunken Angel"). Something similar happens with her obsession over place names. Williams's very first number on Happy Woman Blues was a love song to a town, but here the car wheels on gravel and concrete mostly tear through those Southern towns without stopping. Their names crowd the lyrics like never before, so we get an album driven by the need for escape intensely rooted in a sense of home.

More than one critic has already claimed that all the paradoxes on Car Wheels add up to some kind of miracle, and they do. But Williams's miracle may also be part of a larger one afoot in our youth-obsessed culture. In a time of intense fragmentation, older artists are suddenly finding the space to remember who they are, to hone their art with a self-assurance they haven't demonstrated in years. In exemplary concerts and albums over the past few months, I've seen staid performers from Dylan to John Doe, from Bonnie Raitt to Billy Bragg, from Sonic Youth to Jon Langford demonstrate that they're still living as large as the stars, whatever their sales figures. Lucinda Williams is no different. The ultimate paradox of her wonderful, aching new album is that it gives aging mortals everywhere so much joyous hope.

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