Worth the Wait
Lucinda Williams takes her time
By Bill Friskics-Warren
SEPTEMBER 22, 1997: Most country and pop music fans know Lucinda Williams for writing "Passionate Kisses," "The Night's Too Long," and "Changed the Locks," songs that became hits for Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, and Tom Petty. But no matter how convincingly these artists render her material, Williams' careworn drawl is still the best vehicle for her unflinching portrayals of longing and loss. Indeed, when many people first hear the Louisiana-born singer perform her own songs, they quickly become devoted fans; they anticipate her recordings and live appearances as if awaiting epiphanies.
The only problem is, Williams' records are few and far between. If it comes out next year, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road will be her third album in a decade, and her fifth since 1979. But as it currently stands, the singer's label, American Recordings, has yet to announce a release date. Frustrated by the delays, critics and biz-watchers have begun talking about the singer as much for what she hasn't produced as for the enduring music that she has created. Ongoing scrutiny has placed considerable pressure on Williams, at times putting her on the defensive.
"A lot of people want to know if I'm holding the record up personally," Williams says. "The answer is `no.' I've been accused of being a demanding perfectionist, as well as a difficult diva. And maybe I am a bit of a perfectionist. But I don't think I should have to apologize for it. The only thing that matters is the end result. As long as I get it done, and get it done well, so what?"
Judging by today's product-driven standards, it would seem that Williams takes an inordinately long time to put out a record. Lucinda Williams, her 1988 breakthrough album, was eight years in the making. Its successor, Sweet Old World, didn't surface until 1992. Industry insiders expected Car Wheels at least two years ago; the record is now so long overdue that it's tempting to hear the track "Can't Let Go" as the project's leitmotif.
Of course, not all artists work at a rapid clip. John Fogerty's 1985 Centerfield album was the former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman's first record in a decade; this year's Blue Moon Swamp is his first in 11 years. Williams typically takes only half that long to complete a project. It also bears noting that her records have been worth the wait. But Williams has been showcasing material from Car Wheels since the winter of 1994 and '95: Each time she performs the songs in concert, she ratchets up the anticipation another notch. Such was the case with a Bluebird Cafe show two weeks ago, at which she performed eight of the upcoming record's 13 songs.
Whereas some listeners are impatient merely because they want to hear a new Lucinda Williams record, others wonder about her ability to deliver. "If I read one more thing about Lucinda's upcoming album, I'm going to throw this monitor through the window," posted one fed-up observer on America Online's No Depression folder, an Internet site frequented by alternative-country enthusiasts. "If that record ever comes out, it had better be pretty goddamn good after all this."
Perversely, the pressure of having people ask, "Where's the record?" is almost nothing compared with the turmoil that has erupted during the making of Car Wheels. First, Williams was unsatisfied with the album she recorded in Austin in early 1996 with longtime producer-guitarist Gurf Morlix. After she rerecorded the project in Nashville with producers Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy, she and Morlix parted ways. Then conflict arose between Earle and Williams. Earle eventually quit the project, and Williams enlisted E Street Band alum Roy Bittan to overdub the remaining portions of the record in Los Angeles.
"All I know," Earle says of working with Williams, "is some things that she loved when we did them in the studio she later decided she didn't like. Then she stopped speaking to me. And I'm not the first person it's happened to. It's not the first record Lucinda's had to do more than once. It happened with her last record," Earle says, referring to Sweet Old World, a project that Williams initially scrapped because she didn't like the way her label, RCA, had produced the album.
"A lot of people don't know what goes on behind the scenes," Williams explains, "the battles I have to fight as woman in the music business.... Sometimes I am a little too self-conscious in the studio, but I don't feel like I have to apologize for wanting things to be right."
Only those present during the recording of Car Wheels know what actually happened. But, as both Earle's and Williams' comments suggest, the very quality that embroils Williams in these conflicts--her uncompromising spirit--is precisely what endows her work with its undeniable appeal.
Lucinda Williams, sticking to her own schedule.
Interestingly enough, Williams admits that her own passivity with producers and record execs has at times hindered her creative process, not to mention delayed the release of her records. "It's been a growing process for me," she says. "I need to learn to assert myself more and deal with things right when they're happening. I still have a problem with confrontation. When I feel like my back's up against the wall, I tend to back down a little, just because I feel intimidated. And, of course, it pisses me off later. I'm sure a lot women--and probably some men too--can identify with that."
Williams' willingness to work with Earle, not known for his patience or diplomacy, is evidence of her growth. "We did butt heads in the studio," Williams says of the experience. "But the long and short of it is, I got a great record." (And, as it turns out, Earle and Williams are reportedly on good terms again.)
The all-but-completed mixes from Car Wheels bear Williams out. Besides featuring the strongest songwriting of her career, the recordings boast more muscle and punch than her previous albums; they also find her vocals more commanding, her phrasing rarely less than breathtaking. Whether she's singing about the smell of coffee, eggs, and bacon (the title track), or she's moaning in anticipation of her lover's caress ("Right in Time"), the desire in Williams' voice is palpable. It's even there when she's searching for beauty in a friend's senseless death ("Drunken Angel"), or salvaging dignity from a failed relationship ("Metal Firecracker").
Stylistically, Williams' records have always covered the roots-music waterfront. Be it the soul groove of "Still I Long for Your Kiss," the Cajun waltz of "Concrete and Barbed Wire," or the Dusty Springfield-like languor of "Too Kool," Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is no exception. "No two songs sound alike," Williams says of the record. "You have `Jackson,' which is kind of folky. You have `Metal Firecracker,' which is kind of pop and sort of Beatle-esque. And `Drunken Angel,' which, to me, is sort of Dylan-esque, although you also hear a Byrds influence in there too."
In the end, though, Williams' music draws its power from the blues, not so much as an idiom--although that's there too--but from blues as a sensibility or feeling. That's certainly the case on "Joy," where over a jabbing slide guitar Williams snarls, "You had no right to take my joy/I want it back." She may be directing her rage at a faithless lover, but she could just as easily be venting at her detractors, people who would judge her for how long she takes to make a record rather than for the uncompromising art she produces.
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