By Eleni P. Austin
Lucinda Williams began her recording career in 1978 at age 25, with her debut, Ramblin’ On My Mind. It was an album of Blues, Country and Folk covers, released on the tiny niche label, Folkways, and it paved the way for a rich, rewarding and sometimes frustrating path.
Lucinda was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1953. Her father was poet and literature professor, Miller Williams. An Arkansas native, he is probably best known for reading his poem, “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina,” at President Bill Clinton’s 1997 Inauguration.
Lucinda had a nomadic childhood, as her father’s teaching jobs took the family from Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Utah, Mexico and even Santiago, Chile. A precocious kid, she showed an affinity for music as a toddler and began writing at six years old.
She soaked up the college environment, receiving early exposure to the music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Later she devoured Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. After her parents divorced her father gained custody of Lucinda and her younger brother.
By now the family settled in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Never satisfied with conventional schooling, she was ejected from high school in 1969 for refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance. Although she never went past the 11th grade, she was accepted by the University Of Arkansas.
But Lucinda had other plans. She had already begun performing publicly, mixing covers with original songs. She relocated to New Orleans, then Austin Texas, drawing on that city’s nascent roots music scene. Finally she moved to New York. A demo reached the Smithsonian Folkways label and she recorded “Ramblin…” in Jackson, Mississippi.
Her second album, Happy Woman Blues, was comprised of original songs. It was released in 1980. By now, Lucinda’s wanderlust had taken her to Los Angeles. After a brief marriage to Long Ryders drummer Greg Sowders, she began to attract the attention of major labels.
CBS (ne’ Sony) Records began to court her, but lost interest when they couldn’t easily categorize her style. Meanwhile she continued recording the follow-up to Happy Woman…. She finally signed with Rough Trade. The venerable British indie label had been home for Punk upstarts like Stiff Little Fingers and Cabaret Voltaire.
Lucinda’s self-titled third album arrived in 1988. Rough Trade didn’t bother to craft an image for her they simply let the music do the talking. The album was a revelation, eight years in the making, the songs were concise and economical, yet they packed a punch.
Critics took notice, as did other artists. Patty Loveless opened the door by recording Lucinda’s song, “The Night’s Too Long.” Not long after, Mary Chapin Carpenter recorded “Passionate Kisses” and it shot to the top of the Country charts and won two Grammys. Later, Tom Petty added her “Change The Locks” to his She’s The One Album.
Lucinda leap-frogged to Chameleon Records, a boutique imprint on the Elektra label. The slightly sadder and world weary Sweet Old World arrived in 1992. This effort solidified her reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter.
Emmylou Harris covered the title track on her atmospheric Wrecking Ball album, but it would be another six years before there was any new music from Lucinda Williams.
She spent that time writing, recording and re-recording what would become Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. After originally recording the tracks in Austin with longtime producer, guitarist Gurf Morlix, Lucinda scrapped those sessions, re-recorded with Steve Earle behind the boards in Nashville. The third and final version was produced by E-Street Band keyboardist, Roy Bittan.
Despite the tsuris the album felt like a musical epiphany. It was a critical and commercial triumph. Not only did it receive a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, it also topped the prestigious Village Voice Critics Poll.
The drama surrounding the making of the album branded her a perfectionist. That reputation would be perfectly respectable for a man, but for a woman, it’s code for “difficult” or “temperamental.”
The next few years saw Williams recording albums at a furious clip, (for her). The subdued Essence arrived in 2001 and received a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. World Without Tears followed in 2003. In 2005, she released her first live album, Live At The Fillmore.
By 2007, she had written enough material for a double album, but her supposedly artist-centric label, Lost Highway, cautioned against a two record set. So her efforts were bifurcated; half the songs appeared on West in 2007, while the remainder found a home on the 2008 collection, Little Honey.
In 2009, Lucinda married record company executive Tom Overby. Two years later she released Blessed, an album reflecting her new domestic happiness. Free of her contract with Lost Highway, they have just created their own label, Highway 20 Records. To celebrate, Williams has finally released her double album, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone.
The album title is derived from the opening track. Here Lucinda adds music to a Miller Williams poem, “Compassion.” Spare and bare bones, it’s basically vocals and an acoustic guitar. The words advocate kindness, even in the face of callous behavior. “You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
Right off the bat, three tracks juxtapose Lucinda’s contradictory nature. The stripped down riffs that open “Protection” feel like a clarion call. The melody walks the line between twang and soul as she constructs an emotional coat of arms. “Livin’ in a world of endless troubles, livin’ in a world of darkness doubles/But my burden is lifted when I stand up and use the gift I was given for not givin’ up.”
“When I Look At The World” offers a sweet benediction. The melody is wrapped in a propulsive rhythm accented by chiming 12-string guitar, tinkling piano and chamberlain. Initially the words feel like a wearisome catalog of woes, “I’ve been unwelcome, I’ve been unloved/I’ve been cheated on and made a fool of.” But by the chorus, Lucinda has flipped the script, sharing some unexpected optimism, “But when I look at the world and all its glory, I look at the world and it’s a different story.”
Meanwhile “Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)” reveals Lucinda’s very spiritual side. Subdued instrumentation is underscored by churchy piano and organ. A sharp mediation on the ephemeral quality of life, the lyrics offer up this hard won wisdom: “It’s always the sweetest reddest roses that kiss the sharpest thorns/It’s always the deepest saddest joys that prove the richest ones.”
Both “East Side Of Town” and “West Memphis” tackle real-life events. The former offers a stinging indictment of an out-of-touch, opportunistic politician. Over sweet Wurlitzer fills and a soaring twin guitar attack she assails his hypocrisy. “You got your ideas and your visions, and you say you sympathize/You look but you don’t listen, there’s no empathy in your eyes.”
The latter is anchored by a leap-frog backbeat, swampy guitar notes and scorching harmonica. The lyrics recount the true story of the West Memphis Three. A 1993 murder case that tried and convicted three teenage boys for a crime they didn’t commit.
The tale would feel like pure Southern Gothic if it wasn’t true. Lucinda puts herself in the shoes of the defendants. “They didn’t like the music I listened to, they didn’t like the way I dressed/They set me up with a forced conviction, I never had a chance.”
Three tracks pay subtle homage to the Blues women who have paved the way. Powered by sneering, circuitous guitar and plinking, insistent piano, “Foolishness” is a sideways update of Bessie Smith’s “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business.”
On the countrified “It’s Gonna Rain,” she receives a vocal assist from Jakob Dylan. The duo navigate an emotional downpour that echoes the mighty Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain.” Finally, there’s the slithering “Something Wicked. The melody is buttressed by waspish guitar riffs, plaintive lap steel and gritty piano. It recalls the take-no-prisoners vibe of Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle.”
No Lucinda Williams album is complete without songs that display her patented “you took my joy and I want it back” brio. There are several to choose from here. On “Cold Day In Hell,” “Wrong Number” and “Big Mess” she verbally eviscerates ex-lovers, finding fresh and pithy ways to say piss off.
“Cold Day…” is a simmering, Bluesy ramble. On “Wrong Number,” swirly guitar and auto-harp collide as she unspools a laundry list of flaws and foibles. With “Big Mess” her dismissive words strike like a coiled python. Spiraling guitars provide a Greek chorus for her brutal rebuke.
Both “Walk On” and “This Old Heartache” offer sardonic methods to survive heartache. On the former, Lucinda delivers a sly pep talk to herself over a shimmering ‘60s groove. She shares this epiphany; “Life is full of heartbreak, but it’s never more than you can take.” Alas, the jangly acoustic charms of the latter can’t really camouflage the ache beneath the pretty façade, “It’s hard to take, this old heartache,” she admits, “it’s driving me out of my mind.”
The best tracks here are “Everything But The Truth,” “Stowaway In Your Heart” and “One More Day.” Urging personal accountability, “Everything…” is powered by guitars that buzz and howl and soul-shouter backing vocals. The melody shares musical DNA with Bob Dylan’s “Serve Somebody.”
Anchored by a rollicking backbeat and skittery guitar, “Stowaway In Your Heart” is an unsentimental encomium to husband, Tom Overby. Finally, “One More Day” pulls out all the stops. Propelled by intertwining saxophone, trumpet, wurlitzer and honeyed guitar licks, the track is bathed in a Stax-Volt patina This tender plea for understanding shares the same gravitas that made “Dock Of The Bay” a classic.
The album closes with an epic version of the late J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia.” The original was a languid reflection of lovesickness. Lucinda’s version is a ripe rumination of erotic ennui. Stretching past the eight minute mark it’s a sprawling end to an ambitious album.
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone received adroit production from Tom Overby and multi-instrumentalist and session whiz, Greg Liesz. Lucinda borrows Elvis Costello’s rhythm section, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher for almost every cut.
Guitar duties are handled by luminaries like Bill Frisell, Val McCallum, Laurel Canyon wunderkind Jonathan Wilson, Stuart Mathis of the Wallflowers and visionary singer/songwriter, Tony Joe White, (“Polk Salad Annie”). British Invasion legend Ian MacLagan and Patrick Warren are on keys. Aside from production chores, Greg Leisz provided electric, acoustic, 6 string and 12 string guitar and pedal steel.
The instrumental breaks on each song are bursting at the seams with fillips and filigrees. All this room to breathe gives the listener permission to (paraphrasing, Mr. Mojo Risin’) to “wallow in the mire” of each track’s heartache, heartbreak and sheer irritation. Her measured and economical language is as poetic as her father’s. Down Where The Spirit Meets the Bone represents another triumph for Lucinda Williams.