By Eleni P. Austin
In 1988, Lucinda Williams seemed to appear out of nowhere, with a self-titled album released via the British Punk label, Rough Trade. In reality, she had been making music for more than a decade, and already had two other records under her belt.
Lucinda was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1953. Her dad, Miller Williams, was a poet and college professor. An Arkansas native, he later gained national attention when he was selected by Bill Clinton to read his poem, “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina” at the 42nd President’s second Inauguration. She endured a peripatetic childhood, as her dad’s career took them from Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Utah, Mexico and eventually, Santiago, Chile. A precocious kid, she showed an affinity for music early on and starting writing her own songs at the tender age of six.
Soaking up her erudite environs, she quickly discovered Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Later, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen became musical touchstones. Music became her solace when her parents’ marriage was cracking up. Once they divorced, her dad was granted custody of Lucinda and her younger brother. The family was now residing in Fayetteville, Arkansas. By the time she was 16, she was kicked out of high school for refusing recite the pledge of allegiance. Although she dropped out in the 11th grade, she was still accepted into the University OF Arkansas.
But Lucinda wasn’t having it. She had already begun performing publicly, mixing her own songs with a few canny covers. Intent on a music career she moved to New Orleans, and then quickly relocated to the thriving music mecca of Austin, Texas. By the time she ended up in New York she had inked a deal with the Smithsonian-Folkways label. Her debut, Ramblin’ On My Mind, was recorded in Jackson, Mississippi. It was released in 1978, just (ahead of/after) her 25th birthday.
Although the first album was sharp selection of favorite covers, her sophomore effort, Happy Woman Blues comprised completely of Lucinda Williams originals. Released in 1980, it signaled the arrival of a significant new voice. The music industry took notice. Lucinda was now living in L.A., following a brief marriage to Long Ryders drummer Greg Sowders. Although major labels began sniffing around, she nixed a deal with CBS (Sony), because they couldn’t figure out how to categorize her quirky blend of Folk, Rock, Country and Blues. Instead, she signed with Rough Trade. It would be another eight years before her self-titled third album appeared.
Lucinda Williams was a revelation. Her songs were crackling and concise. Sparkling melodies incorporated myriad styles and her rough-hewn vocals wrapped around tart and uncompromising lyrics. Rough Trade didn’t try to pigeonhole her sound. They were content to let the music do the talking. Critics took note as did other artists. Patty Loveless and Mary Chapin Carpenter each took Lucinda songs to the top of the Country charts, exposing her to a whole new audience.
She returned in 1992, having signed with Chameleon, a boutique imprint from Elektra Records. Her fourth album, the sadder and somewhat world-weary Sweet Old World was released to unanimous critical acclaim. Emmylou Harris covered the title track on her atmospheric Wrecking Ball album and Tom Petty served up a scabrous version of her “Changed The Locks” song on his She’s The One album. Although she wasn’t very prolific, she had cemented her reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter.
She spent a few years writing, recording and re-recording what would become her watershed album, “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.” It took shape in Austin with original producer, guitarist Gurf Morlix. But those sessions were scrapped and she enlisted musician Steve Earle to produce the album in Nashville. A final version was finally released in 1998, with production credit given to Roy Bittan, keyboard player for Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band.
Despite the lengthy gestation process, the record was an epiphany. It netted Lucinda a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and topped several prestigious critics’ polls including the Village Voice’s Jazz & Pop Poll. Of course, the drama surrounding the making of the record branded her a perfectionist. For a man, that’s a badge of honor, for a woman, its code for difficult or temperamental.
Over the next few years, she accelerated the recording process, releasing albums in a quick and timely fashion. Her 2001 Grammy winner, Essence was followed two years later with World Without Tears and her first live set, Live At The Fillmore arrived in 2005. Another two years elapsed, and she’d amassed enough material for a double album, but her cautious label, Lost Highway, insisted split the songs over two albums, West and Little Honey, released in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
The following year, she followed her heart and married music exec Tom Overby. Two years into the marriage she recorded Blessed which seemed to reflect her newfound happiness. Freed from her Lost Highway contract, she and Tom created their own imprint, Highway 20. 2014 saw the release of her first double L, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Spare, elegant and literate, it pleased critics and fans alike. It debuted at #13 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and at #1 on the Folk Album chart.
She doubled down on the double-album formula for 2016’s The Ghosts Of Highway 20. Some of the slower, somber songs felt like a reaction to the recent passing of her father. The next year she re-recorded her landmark Sweet Old World, as This Sweet Old World, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of its original release. After an intriguing collaboration with Jazz saxophone player Charlie Lloyd and Roots Rockers The Marvels, under the moniker “Vanished Gardens,” she returned in 2020 with an intense collection of new songs entitled Good Souls Better Angels. It featured the single “Man Without A Soul,” a brutal excoriation of Donald Trump.
With the country closed up for Covid, and music clubs struggling to stay afloat, she decided to help by launching Lu’s Jukebox, offering a series of themed, livestream concerts that pay tribute to specific artists, musical styles and eras. Fans could purchase tickets through participating venues, who received a portion of the profits. She had been wanting to do a cover series for a while, endless months on the road left no time. The first show, “Running Down A Dream: A Tribute To Tom Petty” aired last October, a few days after what would have been Tom’s 70th birthday. It felt wholly apropos, as she and Tom had been compadres for decades. She opened for what became his final concert at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2017, a few weeks before his untimely death. Recording live in the studio with her crack touring band, she has just released the set on CD and vinyl.
The record opens almost tentatively with “Rebels.” The original version appeared on Tom and The Heartbreakers’ most ambitious (and frustratingly compromised) album, “Southern Accents.” If his rendition is wildly cinematic, with ringing Rickenbacker guitars, brass fanfares and stacked backing vocals, Lucinda’s leans toward monochromatic Film Noir. Shimmering rhythm guitars, gnarled bass lines and a rock-ribbed rhythm provides ballast for cascading lead guitar licks and her blurred vocals. The song’s opening couplet paints a vivid portrait of the morning after; “Honey, don’t walk out, I’m too drunk to follow, you know you won’t feel this way tomorrow…” the rationale for drunken debauchery is simply a matter of geographical ancestry; “I was born a rebel, down in Dixie on a Sunday mornin,’ yeah, with one foot in the grave and one foot on the pedal, I was born to rebel.” A wily guitar solo meanders through the mix, making the misbehavior a little easier to forgive.
Not only did Tom and Lucinda share a dazzling gift for songcraft, matching sly and observational lyrics to indelible melodies, they also connected over their shared Southern heritage. She honors that bond on four tracks.
First up are a couple of deep cuts. “Gainesville,” remained unreleased until it was included on 2018’s posthumous American Treasure collection. Serrated guitar chords slice through slithery bass lines and an edgy beat. Lucinda’s mien is blasé as she parses economical lyrics that offer a gimlet-eyed encomium to Tom’s hometown; “Gainesville was a big town, Gainesville was a big town/On and on and on we go, good times roll and then move on, long ago and far away, another time another day.” A knotty guitar solo unfurls on the break over thick rhythm riffs and a walloping beat.
With the Sunshine State covered, it’s on to Bayou Country, which happens to be Lucinda’s point of origin. The song kicks into gear as rumbling drums collide with kaleidoscopic keys and burnished guitar licks. Lyrics offer a snapshot of life on the road, beginning in sunny California and ending up close to Baton Rouge. Lucinda’s croon is suitably world-weary when recalling scenes like this; “Well, I’ll never get over this English refugee, singing to the jukebox in this all-night beanery/ Yeah, he was eating pills like candy and chasing them with tea, you should have seen him lick his lips, that old black muddied beak.” A Countrified guitar solo on the break adds a surprisingly courtly element to the song.
“Down South,” which appeared on Tom’s third solo effort, 2006’s Highway Companion, is even more lighthearted. Lucinda and the band slightly recalibrate the arrangement, injecting a Surf n’ Spy vibe into the proceedings. Reverb-drenched guitars hang 10 over splashy keys, slinky bass and a twitchy beat. Lucinda’s knowing, sardonic tone pairs nicely with lyrics that are reflective and somewhat redemptive; “Spanish moss down south, find the heroes of my childhood, who now can do me no good, carve their names in the dogwood/Chasin’ ghosts down south, spirits across the dead fields, mosquitos hit the windshield, all documents remain sealed.” A rippling guitar solo is positively bouzouki-riffic, exchanging sand and surf for grape leaves and retsina.
Finally, “Southern Accents” is a twangy torch song. Slurred and soporific, gauzy electric piano wraps around bramble-thick guitars, brittle bass and a kick-turn beat. Lucinda’s slow as molasses drawl navigates lyrics that split the difference between mea culpa and benediction; “There’s a southern accent where I come from, the young’uns call it country, the Yankees call it dumb/I got my own way of talkin,’ but everything is done with a southern accent, where I come from.” On the bridge the heartbreak feels palpable; “For just a minute there, I was dreaming, for just a minute it was all so real, for just a minute she was standing there with me…there’s a dream I keep having, where my mama comes to me, then kneels down by the window and says a prayer for me.”
Covering a well-known artists, can be tricky. No one wants to hear rote replicas of the original versions, but radical reinventions are also tough to execute. Lucinda deftly walks a tightrope between both extremes on three songs. The title track is transformed from a Classic Rock anthem into spiky Punk-tastic Garage Rock. Stripped-down guitars connect with loose-limbed bass and a battering ram backbeat. Lucinda’s vocals are suitably feral, matching the urgency of autobiographical lyrics like “I’m runnin’ down a dream that never would’ve come to me, workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads, I’m runnin’ down a dream.”
“You Wreck Me” is also surprisingly lean and unfussy. Slashing power chords crash over prowling bass lines and a pounding tom-tom beat. Even when she’s paying a sideways compliment; “Oh yeah, you wreck me baby, you break me in two, you move me Honey, yes you do,” Lucinda’s manner is cool and laconic. So it’s left up to the guitars to wreak havoc, as spiraling riffs give way to squally shards that crash over the break.
While Tom was the master of hooks, Lucinda is the mistress of groove, never is that more evident than on “You Don’t Know How I Feel.” In her hands, this cranky manifesto becomes a Memphis Soul gumbo. Crafty electric piano notes intertwine with slow-cooked rhythm guitar and stinging lead riffs over a wash of mellotron and a shuffle rhythm. Lyrics like “So let’s get to the point, let’s roll another joint, and turn the radio up loud, I’m too alone to be proud/You don’t know how it feels, you don’t know it feels to be me,” explicate the angst. But Lu’s sly vocal delivery is strictly tongue-in-cheek.
Much of Tom Petty’s catalogue has been woven into the fabric of American life. From the Punky jingle-jangle jingoism of “American Girl,” and the defiant urgency of “Refugee” to the take-no-prisoners grit of “Jammin’ Me” and the tart portrait of suburban ennui like “Free Fallin.’” But on occasion, he could take a deep dive into melancholia. Lucinda tackles two tracks that plumb those quiet corners, “Face In The Crowd” and “Room At The Top.”
The former, which blends reverb-y guitars, splintery keys and a tick-tock beat, is desolate and mournful. Lucinda’s hazy vocals only add to the ache, as lyrics etch out that feeling we’ve all experienced, being alone in a crowd; “Out of a dream, out of the sky, into my heart, into my life, you were just a face in the crowd.”
The latter was a highlight on Tom and the Heartbreakers’ underrated 1999 gem, “Echo.” Filigreed fretwork is accented by percolating keys, slippery bass lines and a kickdrum beat. The lyrics, accented by Lucinda’s fragile phrasing, quietly explore the cruel dichotomy of having it all, but still feeling emotionally and spiritually bankrupt “I got a room at the top of the world tonight, I can see everything tonight/I got a room where everyone can have a drink and forget those things that went wrong in their life.” Guitars flutter and quaver, building to a quiet crescendo on the instrumental outro.
Other interesting tracks include a razor-sharp take on the anthemic “I Won’t Back Down,” as well as a sunny rendition of “Wildflowers.” Over twinkly keys, jangly guitars and a loping beat, Lucinda is equal parts flirty and flinty. The album closes with a Lucinda original, “Stolen Moments” which offers a wistful elegy to her old pal. Low-slung guitars are bookended by sinewy bass and a brawny beat. “Driving down Sunset, I’m stuck in traffic with the sun coming in from the west/So I cover my eyes, and I wait for the light to change, and I think about you, it’s kinda strange, but I think about you… in stolen moments, you’re riding with me, you’re riding with me again.” Produced by Lucinda and Tom Overby, the album spotlights the talents of her adroit backing band which includes Steve Mackey on bass, Fred Eltringham on drums, Stuart Mathis on guitar and Joshua Grange on guitars and keys.
Lucinda has noted that, for her, the only “silver lining” of the pandemic “has been to be able to really get inside the songs of some of my favorite artists-see what makes them tick.” With Runnin’ Down A Dream, she truly inhabits some essential Tom Petty songs. More importantly, she honors the legacy of a friend, gone too soon.