By Eleni P. Austin
It’s an acknowledged fact that Victoria Williams is the doyenne of the High Desert music scene. Yes, Gram Parsons first proselytized about the area in the late ‘60s, (and actually died there in ’73). Donovan and Eric Burdon put down roots, but she is the first distaff Rocker to make it home. If Teddy Quinn is the unofficial Mayor of Joshua Tree, Vic is the regal Queen.
Victoria was born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana in late 1958. Her father was a doctor and her parents were fairly strict Methodists. She was a typical kid, a tomboy who loved riding her bike and exploring her rural surroundings accompanied by her dog. By her teens she began playing guitar. Carving her own artistic path, she followed her muse, eschewing convention and confounding expectations.
At Louisiana’s Liberal Arts school, Centanary College, she majored in music and French and joined a local band, G.W. Korners. She fit in well with their Bluesy Rock/Folk sound adding guitar and backing vocals. Quitting school, she travelled first to Colorado, getting a job at a resort. It was there that she began writing her own songs, her monotonous work routine allowed her to compose in her head with little outside distraction.
From Colorado, her wanderlust took her to Los Angeles for a time. She returned to Louisiana, hoping to get a band together but was dismayed to find that her friends’ recreational drug use had graduated to addiction fleeing a suffocating relationship, she returned to California for good.
Initially, she busked at Venice beach, joined a Black Gospel Church in Watts and managed to participate at the Troubadour’s legendary weekly “Hoot Night.” She met singer-songwriter for Peter Case, (former Front-man for protean Power Pop-Punk bands the Plimsouls and the Nerves). Pretty quickly their friendship blossomed into romance and the couple was married.
As Peter began to record his first solo album, Vic started to make a name for herself playing around town. Her quirky music gained the attention of the infamous Van Dyke Parks, (best known for his collaboration with Brian Wilson on “SMiLE,” and a Southern eccentric in his own right). Initially, she was offered a contract with the respected indie label, Rough Trade, but then Geffen Records stepped in. Ultimately, she went with the label that was already home to her husband and had whose roster had included Elton John, Neil Young and John Lennon.
Geffen paired her with producer Anton Fier, and her debut, Happy Come Home arrived in 1987. Famous new friends like Van Dyke, Syd Straw, T-Bone Burnett and Bernie Worrell helped out, but it proved a deft introduction to Vic’s Sui generis singing, (which she has described as “wobbly”), and her intriguing worldview.
Critics loved the record, and she was slowly finding her audience. Unfortunately, the major label had rather rigid ideas as to how her music should be presented, which ran contrary to Vic’s true vision. After one record she parted company with Geffen and turned to Rough Trade. Sadly, her marriage was on the rocks, and she and Peter quietly divorced in 1989.
Released the following year, her sophomore effort, Swing The Statue, benefitted from sympathetic production from multi-instrumentalist Michael Blair. This time Vic co-produced and the music hewed more closely to the spontaneous joy of her live performances. Regrettably, Rough Trade filed for bankruptcy not long after the album came out, but it managed to wow critics and her fan base increased.
Vic was making a name for herself, appearing on albums by Milo Binder, Marvin Etzioni and L.A.’s answer to the Everlys, The Williams Brothers, (no relation). Heavy hitters like Lou Reed and Neil Young sang her praises; in fact, the latter invited her to open his 1992 tour. It was around this time that she began to experiencing numb sensations in her hands, making it difficult to play guitar.
A visit to the doctor resulted in a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. A neurological disorder, there is no cure for MS, but with treatment, it can be controlled. Typically, musicians don’t have comprehensive health insurance and the medical bills began to pile up. Luckily, the music community rallied around Vic, a couple of benefit concerts helped out, but those measures were temporary. What she required was something that would continue to generate income.
The Sweet Relief album was recorded and released in 1993. Friends and admirers, (some at the height of their popularity), like Pearl Jam, Lucinda Williams, Soul Asylum, Matthew Sweet, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, Lou Reed, Giant Sand and the Jayhawks, each covered a favorite Victoria song.
In one fell swoop, they covered her expenses, (donating all their royalties to her), aided other musicians with health issues, (by creating the Sweet Relief Fund), and raising her profile exponentially in the music industry. (Pearl Jam’s version of her “Crazy Mary” song went into heavy rotation on MTV and myriad radio stations across the country).
By now Vic had left the cosmopolitan chaos of Los Angeles for the desolate beauty of Joshua Tree. She was also remarried, to Mark Olson of the Jayhawks. The pair had met 10 years earlier and recently reconnected. Vic had good days and bad days, sometimes she was confined to a wheelchair or receiving intravenous steroid treatments. She also continued to write and record music in their tiny desert cabin.
Newly signed to the Mammoth/Atlantic label, a wolfpack of musician pals converged to help record her third solo album, Loose. Released in 2004, it received rapturous reviews and respectable sales. Vic was well enough to go out on the road with a lot of the players who’d played on the album, along with her beloved dog, Mollie, who could be counted on to enter stage mid-set, curl up and take a nap!
For the remainder of the 20th century, she continued to make music. Mark left the Jayhawks in 1995, and along with Vic and their pal Mike “Razz” Russell, they formed the Original Harmony Creek Dippers. In the next few years, she toggled between OHCD albums and solo efforts like 1998’s Musings Of A Creek Dipper and 2000’s Water To Drink.
2002 saw the release of Sings Some Ol’ Songs a collection of favorite standards, given that incomparable Victoria Williams spin. Although she and Mark split up in 2005, they remain good friends. He has managed to maintain a thriving solo career.
Fast forward a dozen years and Vic continues to play and sing, and most importantly, safeguard her health. She has recorded sporadically with respected singer-songwriter M. Ward as well as former Belle & Sebastian vocalist Isobel Campbell in the producer’s chair.
Although it’s been 15 years since her last official release, she still collaborates with well-known musicians like Rickie Lee Jones and Howe Gelb, as well as local artists like Son Of the Velvet Rat. Meanwhile, nearly every live album Pearl Jam has released in the last 20 years has included their version Of “Crazy Mary.”
Fans have learned to be patient, and that virtue is now being rewarded by the folks at Fire Records. Even if there is no new music on the immediate horizon, we can console ourselves with a newly released archival recording. Town Hall 1995 documents the live sound of Vic and her Loose Band during the tour that followed the release of her third album.
The first three tracks, “A Century Tree,” “Harry Went To Heaven” and “You R Loved” deftly set the tone for this warm and wonderful show. “…Tree” flutters to life with Vic’s tremulous vocals, underscored by honeyed mandolin filigrees and swooping viola accents. Keenly observational lyrics compare the slow growth of the Agave Americana Cactus with late life epiphanies from active senior citizens; “…He went back to college at the age of 63, graduated with honors with an Agriculture degree/And he joined the Peace Corps at the age of 69, and rode the Grand Rapids at the age of 83.” It’s a loving encomium to late-bloomers.
The melody of “Harry Went To Heaven” recalls the lilt of French Musette and shares some musical DNA with the ‘40s standard, “Moonlight In Vermont.” Opening with pensive electric guitar, plaintive piano and Vic’s distinct croon, she paints a vivid portrait of her old compadre, Harry. “On slow Sunday afternoons one could hear a tune rise from the alley way, as the church goers spilled out on the steps and say ‘must be Harry and the boys, still going strong from Saturday.” Languorous clarinet notes waft like smoke rings enveloping Vic’s trilling vocals.
“You R Loved” is anchored by slapdash percussion, pedal steel accents and prickly piano. A mid-tempo rocker it pivots on dense harmonies and flange-y guitar. This is Vic at her most spiritual, giving herself up to a higher power exemplified by “lines of poetry, revealing mysteries.” Insisting Jesus’ love is universal, her impassioned ardor makes believers of even the most aporetic.
Two tracks in this 15-song set date back to her debut record. “Frying Pan” is a sunny charmer; the rollicking melody is tethered to a galloping gait. Propulsive keys and pedal steel intertwine as Vic and the band harmonize and commiserate over life’s trials, tribulations and rewards; “When the rules break, there’s no mistake, there are precious times, you and I, we walk the line.” Meanwhile “Main Road” is a childhood pentimento powered by majestic piano and thunder-y percussion.
Her “Swing The Statue” album is also well represented with both “Boogie Man” and “Summer Of Drugs.” On the former Sidewinder guitar, off-kilter rhythms and a wash of organ provide ballast for this slippery tale preconceived notions.
The latter is more expansive and contemplative. Guitar and sitar weave a Psychedelic tapestry adding rubbery bass lines and shuddery keys. The lyrics document the generational disconnect that divided the Greatest Generation and their Baby Boomer progeny; “Mama and daddy could never understand their life was never dull, their idea of a rollicking time was a kitchen taffy pull/Acid, grass, downs and speed junk those days were made of…Now we’re just waking up from the summer of drugs.” Her cutting social commentary is camouflaged by homespun down home homilies. The track winds down with an appropriately kaleidoscopic outro.
Naturally, the songs from “Loose” are front and center here. The stand-out tracks from that album are “Crazy Mary,” “Polish Those Shoes,” and “Happy To Have Known Pappy.” Thanks to Pearl Jam, “Crazy Mary” is her best known track, while their version is stripped down and suitably grunge-y, the original has a Southern Gothic verisimilitude that can’t be matched.
The tune begins hesitantly with spiky guitar and sawing violin. The lyrics offer a cryptic sketch of a reclusive woman living on the outskirts of town; as the instrumentation builds adding sparkling piano and a tick-tock beat, Vic’s vocalese rises above the band’s ecclesiastic harmonies. Once Mary’s demise is revealed the band stretches out on the break, keys get churchy, guitars are drenched in wah-wah reverb and mandolin notes are appropriately melancholy. Vic somberly notes “That what you fear most, could meet you halfway.”
The other two tracks are closer to suites than songs. “Polish Those Shoes” is propelled by a see-saw rhythm, taut piano-guitar interplay, shimmery violin, and sanguine mandolin. Only Vic could open a song gleefully referencing the childhood game of “One-Potato,” (perhaps “Ink-A-Dink” felt played out), before offering a picaresque snapshot of childhood memories. The melody shapeshifts from a dreamy ballad to a Vaudevillian Waltz, to a Jazzy work-out, all the while maintaining her own brand of playful insouciance.
Finally, “Happy To Have Known Pappy” is an affectionate homage to the man behind the infamous High Desert Saloon. When Vic first arrived there nearly 30 years ago, it was Pappy Allen who welcomed her to the area with open arms. Something of a musician himself he toured Europe with Vic and Giant Sand. When he passed she sang this song at his wake.
An infectious tribute, it shifts time signatures from shambolic waltz to joyous Second Line celebration, fueled by her yelping exclamation of “who’s the one who made life so fun!” Sharing she was “a member of the ‘happy to have known Pappy Club,’” she notes the enrollment was international; “Yes Australians there were a few, New Yorkers flew in too/Some people came in from Boston, some drove in from Los Angeles, I hear they even let someone out of prison too!”
Other interesting cuts include the twinkly tone poem “Lights,” The Cajun-inflected “Vieux Amis” and the meandering “Hitchhiker’s Smile.” Of course, Lou Reed adds a little star power joining Vic and the band on stage for a version of his seminal “Sweet Jane.” For once the Punk Paterfamilias drops his cranky cynicism and seems to thoroughly enjoy Vic’s singular phrasing, encouraging her to wig out a bit in between verses. The album closes with a tender take on the “Wizard Of Oz” classic, “Over The Rainbow.”
The Loose Band is made up of a who’s-who of well-known musicians, featuring ex-Lone Justice drummer Don Heffington, Calexico bassist Joey Burns, Tim Ray, on loan from Lyle Lovett’s Large Band, on piano and organ, plus multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield playing Pedal steel, violin and mandolin. David got his start with T-Bone Burnett in the Alpha Band, touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.
But the band’s MVP is Andrew Williams on guitars, sitar, vocals and Wurlitzer. Along with his twin, David, Andrew made his bones as a budding teen
Idol (they guested on the “Partridge Family”), before diving headlong into the fertile L.A. music scene in the early ‘80s. As the Williams Brothers they made three perfectly sublime albums on Warner Brothers, but their hometown popularity never translated to national success, despite a Top 50 hit single, “Can’t Cry Hard Enough, and tours opening for Linda Ronstadt, the BoDeans and Vic.
This album first arrived in vinyl form as a 10 song LP, just in time for April’s Record Store Day. The newly released compact disc adds five more tracks from the show. Both were edited, sequenced and mastered by local treasure Chris Unck.
Victoria Williams is truly one of a kind. Town Hall is a perfect introduction to her eccentric talents. Hopefully some new music from her is just around the corner.