Moon-Shaped Panties and the Saint of White Trash
By Margaret Moser
OCTOBER 26, 1998: "I am so damn tired of reading about why it took me six years to make a record!"
Lucinda Williams is not "on." There's no tape recorder running, no audience to please. She's just driving through Nashville. She's also just a mite exasperated about how, despite overwhelmingly positive press for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the singer-songwriter's fifth full-length release, most stories have focused on how long it took to make the album.
She exaggerates "six years," the time elapsed between the 1992 release of Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which came out in June, and punches the gas pedal of her truck, headed from her Green Hills home to the Loew's hotel in Nashville's West End.
"It was six years between records," she says wearily, reeling off the attendant circumstances that lead to its delay, including producer problems, splitting with her longtime band, being sandwiched between two labels going under, and yes, her infamously cautious approach.
"Steve [Earle] would sit there in the studio, shake his head, and say, 'Lu, it's just a record. I just put one out and have a new batch of songs ready for the next.'"
Williams, who has lived in Nashville for the past five years, is so intent on setting the record straight she passes up the hotel's street. As her error is subsequently transformed into a mini-tour of the folksy neighborhood that lies in and around Vanderbilt University, the hotel comes into view. Though it takes two more negotiations around various streets, and more sights pointed out, just when it seems Lucinda is hopelessly turned around, she nimbly maneuvers the truck into the Loew's driveway.
"Yeah," smiles the woman who won a Grammy for asking "Shouldn't I have all of this?" pulling to a stop in front of the hotel. "But mine got four and a half stars in Rolling Stone."
The Late Lucinda WilliamsThe morning starts normally for Lucinda. Well, maybe not normal, since she's in Nashville and in these days of skyrocketing fame and all the right moves, she's more often on the road. Puttering happily around the warm wood-cabinet kitchen in the morning is becoming a rare event. This particular respite is sandwiched between her Lilith Fair dates in Texas and an upcoming three-week jaunt that will take her from playing with the Allman Brothers Band in Knoxville to New York for VH1's Hard Rock Live and then across the country to The Tonight Show. As long as she's at home, though, there are other things on her mind: going to the hairdresser, getting a pedicure, and buying a new pair of boots at the Harley-Davidson store.
Lucinda stands in the morning light drinking coffee and looking a little rumpled, her eyes still lined with makeup from last night's dinner and smudged in a way that looks endearing on the 45-year-old musician. She wears charcoal gray workout clothes. Later, she changes into a red ribbed shirt for the afternoon's errands.
"My color of the day is cherry red," she offers with a playful grin by way of mentioning her affinity for certain colors on specific days. Her belief in the power of color is as characteristic of her spiritual nature as is the Western/Indian/Mexican/folk art/white trash decor throughout her house. "The Rolling Stone writer called it 'iconography,'" she exclaims. "I didn't know there was a name for this stuff!"
Lucinda seems incredulous at the term as she walks into the living room and gestures to a papier-mâché skeleton sitting on a small wooden bench in front of the fireplace, a ballcap whimsically askew on its head.
"Some people here [in Nashville] don't get it," she says about the proliferation of Day of the Dead icons, Mexican crosses and snakes, and various Virgins of Guadalupe, all neatly arranged on the mantle -- images common to anyone who's traveled along the Southern highways of Lucinda's songs. Another wall of shelves holds CDs and books, though not as many as are usually seen in the singer's residences.
"I really do have a lot of books, I just don't have enough bookshelves," she apologizes before excusing herself to prepare for the day's errands and running around.
The first order of business is getting her live-in boyfriend Richard Price to band rehearsal. A group he formed with friends Dave Perkins and Reese Wynans, Price's band has a gig that night at a club called 3rd and Lindsley, but since the drummer is pinch-hitting, they need a good, long rehearsal. Right now, he's waiting on Lucinda, and waiting on Lucinda means just that -- waiting. Out back of the house, he walks over to the large, three-car garage, its red brick exterior in contrast to the main building, which looks ever so slightly like a church.
"Look at this," says Price.
Clicking the garage door open, he makes his way through miscellaneous furniture, boxes and boxes of Lucinda's books, trunks containing all her personal correspondence and letters, and musical equipment. An elaborately organized recycling system of eight or nine plastic garbage cans takes up most of the near wall. At the far wall, Price pulls out a three-panel folding cardboard collage. It's almost as tall as he is.
"This was a room divider," he says, displaying its panels. "Like a screen, you know? Lu made it when she was young."
At a glance, many of the images are familiar in a distant way, clipped from the pages of Life, Look, Time, and other magazines from the late Sixties and early Seventies. Pictures of psychedelia, hippie couples, and rock & roll compete with scenes from demonstrations, riots, and other political events of the day. Lucinda would have been in her teens when these events were making headlines; an uncommonly astute teenager she, having been disciplined in high school during a civil rights demonstration. A third panel, covered with nudes and centerfolds from a time when Playboy and Penthouse first discovered women had pubic hair, gives Price reason for pause that has nothing to do with Lucinda.
"She told me, 'I was discovering my sexuality then,'" comments Price.
In a patchwork way, the multitude of images naively stitches together the dreams and wishes of a young woman who would someday write about being overcome with lust in a laundromat, lying on her back and moaning at the ceiling while thinking about her lover. Price leans the collage back against the wall, and having killed a respectable amount of time, shuts the garage door and glances to the house.
"I think Lu was born with molasses in her feet," he chuckles. "She's been better the last three years, though. I think she's been on time four or five times."
The subject of Lucinda's sense of time is a source of amusement to anyone who knows or has worked with the singer. Notoriously poky, her balking is oftentimes the barometer of her attitude. She missed the Grammys in 1994 by goofing around her apartment drinking beer in the morning with pal Dub Cornett until it was too late to catch the plane -- not learning she had won "Best Songwriter" honors for "Passionate Kisses" until another friend called to congratulate her. There are songs she's been working on for 20 years that "aren't finished." Lucinda fudges almost everything time-wise, with more than one person commenting that something might happen according to "LST," Lucinda Standard Time. For her part, Lucinda liked the writer who described this phenomenon as "negotiations" with the clock.
Of course, conventional wisdom has it that being late is a sign of rebellion, a problem with authority. That's Lucinda alright, ever the rebel, but not to be overlooked is the fact that she copes with her career's constant uprooting by depending upon rituals -- compartmentalizing her life the way she keeps a special Guatemalan zippered bag in her tour gear with nothing but Sharpie felt-tip pens for autographs. A woman who has every letter and postcard she ever received, every scrap and notebook she ever scrawled lyrics in is not going to waste time. Her address book, calendar, and itinerary are packed with entries, but she rues the fact that she has so little time for the personal correspondence she has always treasured; nowadays she catches up on writing while on the tour bus. Time is not her enemy, it's something for others to deal with; she'll leave when she's ready. Price walks into the house to fetch her. It will be another 20 minutes before they emerge.
At a comfortable house where onetime Jerry Jeff Walker guitarist Dave Perkins and his family live, Lucinda drops Price off. Former Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans arrives with a friendly smile, and if the hey-weren't-we-all-at-the-Dillo camaraderie weren't already apparent, a familiar bus sits in the back of Perkins' driveway. It's Malcolm Harper's ReelSound bus, says the affable Perkins, nodding toward the studio bus so often seen outside Austin concerts in the Seventies. Williams and Price kiss goodbye and make general dinner arrangements before she heads to the hotel and an afternoon's worth of errands.
Lucinda is a creature of habit, more so than ever since she's only home for a few precious days. Besides getting the usual business considerations out of the way, there are tapes to review and critique, mail to read. Running errands all day isn't all that exciting, especially when you're trapped in stand-still traffic on Briley Parkway near Opryland for almost two hours, and since work habits are hard to keep up when one is not at home much, the safe harbor of any road-weary musician becomes restaurants and bars, where the food is consistent and the $60 bottles of wine written about in Newsweek flow freely.
It's Just a Record, LuA dark, underlit place, the Tin Angel is not at all what Hemingway had in mind. It was once known as the Bishop Bar, a noted songwriter-folkie hangout, and its dark red brick interior has that inviting, if-walls-could-talk feel. The music is Triple A; Doc Watson's "Tennessee Stud" inspires a toast to Nashville and is followed by Delbert McClinton, Nanci Griffith, and Willie Nelson. Not long after that, "Right on Time," from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, starts playing. Lucinda's face lights up.
"Kinda cool, huh?" she smiles proudly, relaxing on her home turf. She tried living in Austin for a third time in the early Nineties, but felt the town had lost its magic. Nashville may not have Austin's cachet, but Lucinda wanted more substance than style. And what Nashville lacks in soul, it makes up for in industry know-how.
A local musician who bears a striking resemblance to actor Bill Paxton stops by the table and offers his congratulations on the success of Lucinda's new album. He works with Patty Griffin and they chat about her management and career. Lucinda scribbles her phone number on a sheet of paper and hands it to him. "Tell her to call me if she wants to talk," she volunteers. It's an offer Griffin would do well to accept; Lucinda is a seasoned veteran of music industry wars. When her pasta with smoked chicken arrives, she picks up a forkful and the thread of this afternoon's conversation.
"The actual studio time was only two years," she explains. "Look at Pink Floyd, John Fogerty. Big deal. I was dealing with Rick Rubin. That should tell you something right there. He never came to any sessions in Austin. Every time we'd record, we'd have to send the tapes to him and wait for him to listen to them for a response. There's where that time goes.
"Then, towards the end, [Rubin] decides to switch distribution from Warner to Sony. That created a total deadlock this last year when the record was done in March of 1997. No one realized that. All of '97, we were waiting for him. He let everyone go at American Records, the office shut down, and he wasn't sure what he was doing. It was during that time Mercury came in and offered to buy out the contract with Rick.
"Then the press is coming to me, asking, 'What's going on? Where's the record?' and I'm not supposed to talk. I was still technically on American. The publicist would tell the press I was still in the studio, because she didn't want Rick to look bad, which pissed me off.
"A guy from the L.A.Times finally came out and asked, 'Is the record gonna come out on American?' I looked around and said, 'Probably not.' Well, that did it. He called the PR person at American saying, 'What's this I hear about the record not coming out?' so [the publicist] calls up my manager Frank [Callari]. 'Lucinda's been saying all this stuff.' And Frank says, 'What do you expect? What's she supposed to do?'
"I'm at the disadvantage [at this point]. The record is done, but it's tied up with record company bullshit, which I can't talk about. The publicists [meanwhile] kept saying we're still tinkering on the record. It was horrible. Then, the record finally comes out and every single review is like, 'Why did it take six years to make a record?' It didn't, it was six years between records.
"I was still working on Sweet Old World in '94 and started Car Wheels in 1995. The label I was on [Rough Trade] folded. The next label I was on practically went under; technically, Rick still has the American Records name and is still carrying on, but for all practical purposes, it was not functioning as a label. Is that my fault?
"And the questions! 'What went down between you and [producer] Gurf [Morlix]? Where's the old band? What was it like being in the studio with Steve Earle?' I was trying to be diplomatic, not burn any bridges or piss anyone off. I love Gurf, but he's dealing with his own thing right now. No, we're not talking at the moment, but I still love him. We butted heads in the studio, but so does everyone else who has ever worked in the studio together. I love Steve and he loves me. Why am I being singled out all of a sudden as if these are new things?
"This New York Times [magazine] guy goes into the studio with me and makes this big deal out of the fact that I can't make a decision about some vocals tracks. If you go into any recording studio on any day, you will see the artist standing behind the vocal mike, going, 'Fuck! That's it!' and stomping out with the producer holding his head. But you know, at the end of the day everybody still loves everybody. They're trying to make a record. It's probably like being in labor; nobody enjoys the pain -- breathe, push, breathe, push. And it takes time! But at least no one forgot about me.
"And that New York Times piece! It was supposed to coincide with the release of the album, but the record was delayed. They said, 'We're either putting the story out now or not at all.' Against my better judgment, I said okay. I asked if they couldn't hold it a while, but they have their little time schedule thing. They've pissed me off twice. The two experiences with journalists that have bummed me out and pissed me off have both been with The New York Times. At least the first time they portrayed me as a neurotic, feisty perfectionist, [another New York Times rock critic] Jon Pareles called me and apologized.
"But the second time I got portrayed as a neurotic, the tone of it was that [Car Wheels producer] Roy Bittan had to tolerate, or put up with me. The vibe was that I was a temperamental artist and that pissed me off beyond words. I was in tears reading it. It said I 'trashed' a friend's recording, I 'fired' my manager and band, I 'canned' a track of Emmylou's. I was appalled! These are my friends and he made me look like a ball-busting, temperamental bitch!"
Song of the SouthLucinda's home is what you might imagine: a comfortable, two-story, gray-painted brick tribute to Southern architecture, built in the Thirties on a spacious lot in one of Nashville's more prestigious neighborhoods by a family for whom the Depression was someone else's problem. It's not the white-columned, Gone With the Wind-type mansion Emmylou Harris inhabits just two doors down, but it most definitely evokes phrases like "gracious Southern living." Back from the Tin Angel, warmed by wine, Lucinda is in high spirits after dinner. The house is dark upon entrance through the rear, so she flips on the kitchen light. Over the door hangs a white plastic cross exhorting the man upstairs to "Bless This Home." Grinning, she jumps up and smacks it, causing a tinny "Hallelujah Chorus" to fill the room. In response, Price yanks a skeleton dangling nearby, making it issue a maniacal laugh, then walks quickly to a silly Halloween ghost hanging by the stairs and tugs it, making it bounce and howl happily. The couple giggles at the cacophony as it echoes through the house at midnight, then flops on the living room couch in front of the TV. One thing is clear: Lucinda is home, if only for another 48 hours.
The interior of the house is contemporary, almost Western. The two couches and two chairs in the living room frame a Southwest woven rug. One wall has a signed print of Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait. Opposite that is a mantle with a Mexican quezocoatl stretched across the top and another snake, its scaly texture made from bottle tops, curled on top of it. Below is the papier-mâché skeleton, one of several decorating the house. Mexican and South American masks line the walls leading upstairs. It's all neat and orderly, the quiet comfort of home, but a crazy salad that seems uniquely suited to Lucinda, herself a product of sharply contrasting cultures. Her collection of CDs is eclectic in the truest sense, from Howlin' Wolf to Enya to ZZ Top. There are only two box sets displayed, an R&B collection of Mercury Records artists and Stevie Nicks' Enchantment. Now that figures: Lucinda might make music just like a woman, but she aches like a little girl.
Lucinda takes a deep and unrestrained pride in weaving her past into her present. Like most smart Southerners, she recognizes the stereotypes and has learned to live with the patronizing attitudes of East and West Coast industry types. It may be the main reason she lives in Nashville; it's hard enough being a woman in the music business without being treated as if you have a mild form of retardation because your accent is thick. And it is thick; Lucinda recently dueted with an eccentric Music City performer named Hayseed on his Watermelon Records' debut, Precious Memories, and the drawl with which she delivers the line "how they linger" ("leengrrrr") is pure Dixie. Lucinda Williams is living proof that you can say "portry" instead of poetry, as SPIN pointed out, and still be a poet.
To the child born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but raised in Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Santiago, Chile, and Mexico City, life was a curiously detached jumble of itinerant intellectualism and traditional values that suit Lucinda's current status rather well. Amid the tension of Sixties Southern towns where restroom signs read "Men," "Women," and "Colored," her father, Miller Williams, a celebrated writer/poet/professor, espoused civil rights as he moved around on the academic circuit. The rootlessness of moving from one university to the next is not unlike the military life or maybe even migrant workers. It creates a profound sense of transience amid intellectual pursuit that makes a child take solace and refuge in books and music because no matter where you live, those things cannot be taken away.
It was also a nomadic lifestyle she would trace as an adult, moving between New
Orleans, Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, Austin, and back to Nashville. Her godfather
is George Haley, activist brother of author Alex Haley -- fitting since Lucinda participated
in high school civil rights demonstrations, a time when she discovered the music
of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, who expressed their distaste for the status quo in song.
Driving through cotton fields and bayou country, she heard the call of the bluesmen
and the country greats moving between the towns where they played juke joints and
"I got hellhounds on my trail" ... "Gonna have good time on the bayou" ... "The police start to shoot me cuz of something I stole" ... "I got ramblin' on my mind" ... "Just dial Lonesome 7-7213"...
Southern mystique runs deeply through Lucinda's music. It's not enough to sing about places like Lake Charles and Lafayette and Greenville and Memphis on the five albums that mark her recording career, it's that she takes you by the hand and shows you her road -- a child's eyes peering through a car window, a woman's glimpse of heaven in the way jeans hang on a man in leather jacket, the view over the shoulder of a wandering spirit.
The little girl who spent hours upon hours at a kitchen table writing stories finally waded into the muddy waters of the South and came out baptized, ready to preach the gospel of Delta blues, Texas country, and Cajun waltzes to largely deaf ears. But they were words with muscle, words with weight. Lucinda's music is finely balanced between literary nonchalance, rustic soul-searching, and passionate storytelling -- the things she has in common with writers she was raised around in the South. While Lucinda has never read steel magnolia essayist Florence King, she'll toast King's assertion that the reason the South is a matriarchy is because Southern women faced down an invading army on their own turf.
"Right on!" cries Lucinda. "I grew up around brilliant Southern writers, wonderful, open-minded, progressive, literary people who happened to be Southern. To me, being a writer and being Southern is the best of both worlds. Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, it doesn't get any better than that. That's what I grew up around, that's what I wanted to be. That's what I wanted to do. I'm probably a frustrated short story writer."
"What's so boring to me, the frustrated short story writer, is here I am in this fluffy, sugar-coated, pop, countercultural youth-oriented thing -- MTV and all that -- and people who don't know anything about that world are asking these lame, boring questions: 'Don't you feel self-conscious exposing yourself?' Can you imagine asking William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams that?"
Lucinda shifts into mock-interview mode.
"'Mr. Williams, don't you feel self-conscious exposing yourself in AStreetcar Named Desire?' 'Miss O'Connor, you write these stories about these strange subjects -- death, disturbed people, circus freaks ...'
"But I'm in the music world, not the writers' world, and I get asked those questions because it's not about being serious, it's not about thinking, it's not about depth.
"I find myself having to explain constantly why I'm writing songs about people who were important to me in my life. How do you answer that kind of question?"
Loading the Metal FirecrackerA tour bus parked out front of a stately home, musicians loading up and families saying good-bye, is not an uncommon sight in better Nashville neighborhoods. Tour buses are as native to the highways around Nashville as roadkill. Out in front of Lucinda's house, equipment is being arranged, bags stowed, bunks reserved, and the machinery that is a tour slowly cranks to life.
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale arrives by cab for part of the tour, there to add his sweet harmonies to Lucinda's charmingly rusted alto. Drummer Fran Breen has already been by earlier with his kit, loaded by road manager John Prestia, who oversees the packing. Guitarist Kenny Vaughn prepares to say farewell to his wife, who picks up the couple's baby and carries her off the bus. When Vaughn rises to follow, their pre-schooler lifts her arms and wails in a heart-melting panic, "Daddy! You forgot me!" This produces a collective, affectionate "awww" from everyone aboard. Guitarist John Jackson relaxes on the bus as the others mill about -- Lauderdale has misplaced his keys. It's an hour after scheduled departure.
"Miss Williams is not ready yet," comes the word, pronounced with dry intent and no room for question. The already easygoing entourage visibly relaxes, and despite news that besides running late they cross a time zone and lose an hour, no one is uptight. Lauderdale and Vaughn decide to make a run to the store; moments after they leave, a taxi arrives and returns Lauderdale's keys.
Nearly two hours after departure time, Price emerges from the house followed by Lucinda and her friend Vicki Vandrey, the closest she has to a personal assistant. Lucinda goes straight to the back of the bus. She likes a bus where she can take care of business as well as relax, but collecting her thoughts can be a long process. She readily acknowledges that Car Wheels' "Metal Firecracker" is about a tour bus; she rarely qualifies it as being about her affair with Chris Isaak's bassist Rowland Salley and their days touring together, a detail that certainly colors its explosive connotation. The metaphor is a perfect analogy for the dynamic of traveling with a troupe of musicians who are either here, there, or in the bathroom. The metal firecracker is ready to roll.
As the bus heads east toward Knoxville, the terrain quickly grows more mountainous and the scenery more picturesque. Vaughn stakes out a bunk and heads for it. Price goes to see Lucinda as Vandrey relaxes on a couch. Prestia is at the table on his cell phone, papers spread before him. Lauderdale is showing Breen and Jackson how plugging their ears with their middle finger and tapping the base of the skull behind the ear with the index finger creates a soothing echo in the head. Jackson is into it, but Breen looks skeptical.
Texas doesn't have a "mountain mentality" like Tennessee; its closest equivalent is probably the East Texas Piney Woods redneck. Mountain mentality seems to infect truckers all over the Volunteer State, however, and to illustrate the point, a blue, unhitched cab pulls alongside the metal firecracker. The driver, who looks like an under-tattooed Tommy Lee, gets on the CB.
"Who ya got in there?" he asks, grinning like a Cheshire hillbilly behind a pair of cheap mirrored shades. The bus driver shines him on. Another truck pulls up behind the blue cab.
"Who are they?" inquires a couple in the second truck, he a beefy specimen of trucker while the girl has blonde cotton candy hair.
"Tell 'em we're the Go-Go's" doesn't quite make it to the CB, because the blue cab pulls ahead so that truck number two now rides in tandem with the bus. The girl lifts her white T-shirt and flashes her very large breasts. Nobody seems particularly interested though one mildly enthusiastic "Woo-hoo" makes it out.
Lucinda emerges from the back just in time for the unveiling, cold and a little cranky. She doesn't like the bus; hates the print of the material on the curtains and seats. She mutters that all the good buses are reserved months, a year even, in advance. All this bullshit and now here's some chick flashing her tits.
"It's just body parts," she snorts derisively.
Overall, the three-hour trip is relaxing and the band is jovial upon arrival in Knoxville. On the large outdoor festival's main stage, alterna-babes Sister Hazel are finishing up their set, with the Allman Brothers scheduled to go on as soon as they're done -- right around the time Lucinda closes the second stage. This has been Lucinda's story all summer: always the bridesmaid, never the bride. After her Lilith Fair second-stage set in Austin, Lucinda was on the side of the main stage watching Bonnie Raitt when Sarah MacLachlan sidled up to her and apologized for her second-tier status. "You should really be up here in Dallas," said the Canadian singer.
In Knoxville, because the other second stage sets have run long, Lucinda's set is delayed, so she uses the time to visit with her mother and her mother's friends. While it's her father who receives the credit for imbuing the singer with her strong literary heritage, it's clear Lucinda's personality and spirit are derived in large part from Lucy Morgan, her mother. The two also share the same brilliant blue eyes. Moreover, it was Morgan who gave Lucinda a sense of independence by allowing her husband to take custody of the children when they divorced in the Sixties. Lucinda hugs her mother warmly and the two talk with Price. Finally, it's time to plug in and play.
When Lucinda begins strumming the opening chord to "Pineola," every minute of the delay starts paying off for the audience of 400-500, who are eager to savor her delicious lyrics and worship at her feet. She does not disappoint. Even in an acoustically impaired venue like this pavilion, Lucinda's sweet voice wavers over the audience, rapt at her presence, and sings to them of lost love, childhood, dead friends, and tender moments. Among the faces in the audience is Lucy Morgan's, beaming with maternal pride, looking around occasionally to see if everyone else sees what she does. By the time Lucinda reaches "Changed the Locks," one of her showstoppers, she has the audience in her slender hand.
After the set comes the usual equipment loading, but Lucinda's got other things on her mind, like saying goodbye to her mother. Lucy has given Lucinda a voodoo doll, which makes the singer laugh. "Only my mother!" laughs the singer. Morgan sends everyone off with kind words, good wishes, and long hugs. "I don't want to leave," she wails in protest, then hugs everyone again and whispers to the attendant writer, "Please send me the story. Everyone always sends stuff to her father."
Williams and Price head toward the Allman Brothers' stage, the band being compadres of his since their younger days in Florida. Dickey Betts invites Price to plug in for an extended version of the classic rocker "Southbound." Price picks up the beat and he and Betts go to it, Gregg Allman sliding in on keyboards. This is one of Betts' trademark songs and he turns to Price in classic guitar duel stance as the two bear down, guitar to bass. Off stage to the left, Lucinda's eyes are fixed not on the Allman Brothers, whom she adores, but on Price. For all the spotlight that shines on her as he stands on the side, she is positively radiant as she watches him.
This Old HouseOld houses like Lucinda's are seldom quiet, even when no one is home. On this sunny Monday morning, she and her band are already on their way to New York, the house is about to be closed up for almost three weeks. The house has its own subtle noises, as if to remind you it lives, no matter who else resides there. The guest room has an austere comfort to it. A small bisque planter decorated with bunnies is filled with Spanish moss and sits on a pine chest, a cedar trunk at the foot of the bed.
The laundry room reveals an impressive array of cleaning products, maybe not surprising for someone who can imbue a lyric such as "washin' your clothes, gettin' all the dirt out" with such disarmingly frank sexuality. Ever the child of the Sixties, Lucinda maintains a very sensual attraction to fragrance; strawberry soap at the kitchen sink, vanilla hand lotion nearby, almond hand cream in a jar, sunflower shower gel, pear-scented liquid soap, occasional bowls of potpourri arranged around the garage sale chic and Depression-era furniture.
On top of the TV sits a collection of videos from an Arkansas fan that provided a couple of hours entertainment a few nights previous. The fan had directed a series of bizarre vignettes that include Satan sitting at a desk in the middle of the Ozark wilderness. Another involved a sheriff and his paramour having a fight, the local actors playing them doing so with hysterically vigorous ineptitude.
"You old Scrooge!" screams the woman, accusing her lawman lover of neglecting her.
"Scrooge! What about them moon-shaped panties I brung ya?" he protests in complete sincerity. Just mentioning the phrase "moon-shaped panties" sends Lucinda into gales of laughter, and she repeats the words with the practiced ear of one who has lived in Arkansas.
Upstairs is Lucinda's bedroom and her office. The bedroom is decorated sparsely: a white chenille bedspread on the bed, Mexican tin crosses framing the mirror over the dresser, two windows at right angles overlooking the backyard. Across the hall in her office, her desk sits before a window that looks out into the neighborhood and is neatly arranged with a desk blotter, a few accessories, and candles scattered about. An acoustic guitar and fax machine forms an odd tableau nearby. To the right, a window holds a stack of posters proclaiming Lucinda "The Saint of White Trash." In the artist's child-like, folk art rendition, Lucinda is a skinny rag doll in cowboy boots, a wiry bundle of pipe cleaners twanging a guitar, the Southern savior for sinners of life who take for granted its quiet joys and rich ironies. A large bookshelf opposite the desk has several shelves of CDs, albums she likes listening to while doing business or correspondence. And there, sitting atop the bookshelf not designed for top-shelf use, sits Lucinda Williams' Grammy. It reads:
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences
The statuette is hefty, something with just enough weight to honor the occasion. It's not dusty, rather it is polished, as if she prizes it highly, but placed so that it doesn't distract her. Lucinda won this not for her own rendition of the song, but instead for the version sung by Mary-Chapin Carpenter.
The Grammy was also the turning point in Lucinda's recording career, one that began in 1979 with the release of Ramblin', a collection of classics and Delta blues covers. The proficiency of her songwriting was documented on 1980's Happy Woman Blues, but it wasn't until 1988, when the eponymous Lucinda Williams come out on Rough Trade (that's eight years between albums) with her version of "Passionate Kisses," that Lucinda had arrived -- something made abundantly clear on the critically adored Sweet Old World in 1992. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road drives each one of those previous recordings home to the soul acutely, so much so that Williams' name is already being bandied about for the 1999 Grammys.
Whatever Carpenter may have lacked in conviction, the impetuous, jangling heart of "Passionate Kisses" was not lost, either on the audience or those who bestowed "Best Songwriting" honors on Lucinda. Ten years after its original release, four years after its win, the words resound as true for Lucinda Williams now as then.
Do I want too much?
Music: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search
© 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Austin Chronicle . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch