By Eleni P. Austin

Lucinda Williams has been a recording artist for 45 years. Her debut, Ramblin’ On My Mind,” a canny mix of Blues, Country and Folk covers was released on the niche label, Folkways, paving the way for a richly rewarding, but occasionally frustrating path.

She was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1953. Her dad was poet and literature professor, Miller Williams. A native of Arkansas, he is probably best known for reading his poem, “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina,” At President Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration. Lucinda endured a nomadic childhood, as her dad’s teaching jobs had the family crisscrossing the country from Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Utah. They even spent time in Mexico and Santiago, Chile. A precocious kid, she displayed an affinity for music as a toddler and began writing at age six.

Growing up, she reveled in the college atmosphere, discovering Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and later soaking up the sounds of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. After her parents divorced, her dad won custody of Lucinda, as well as her younger siblings. At this point, the family had settled in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Rather quickly, she figured out conventional schooling would never be challenging enough. By 1969, she was ejected from high school for refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance. Although she never made it past the 11th grade, she was accepted at the University Of Arkansas.


But Lucinda had other plans. She had already begun performing publicly, initially just her favorite cover songs, interspersed with her own nascent compositions. She moved first to New Orleans, then relocated to Austin, Texas, just as their burgeoning music scene was taking flight. Finally, she landed in New York City. A demo reached the Smithsonian Folkways label. She recorded Ramblin… in Jackson, Mississippi.

Her 1980 follow-up, Happy Woman Blues featured all original songs. At this point, Lucinda’s wanderlust had led her to Los Angeles, and she quickly locked into the thriving club scene. Following a brief marriage to Long Ryders’ drummer Greg Sowders, she began attracting the attention of major labels.

CBS (now known as Sony) began to court her, but lost interest when they weren’t able to define her sui generis style. By the time she headed back in the studio, Rough Trade Records, a venerable British indie, had offered her a deal. The label had previously signed disparate artists like Stiff Little Fingers, Aztec Camera and Cabaret Voltaire.

Lucinda’s eponymous third album arrived in 1988. Rough Trade deliberately opted to not craft her image. They just let her music do the talking. The record was a revelation, eight years in the making, the melodies and arrangements were crisp and concise, the lyrics packed a visceral punch.

The cognoscenti took notice and the reviews were raves. Other artists began to cover her songs. Patty Loveless and Mary Chapin Carpenter took songs like “The Night’s Too Long” and “Passionate Kisses” to the top of the Country charts. A few years later, Tom Petty included her vitriolic “Change The Locks” to his She’s The One album.

By 1992, she had moved over to Chameleon Records, a boutique imprint from the Elektra label. Sadder and slightly world weary, her fourth effort, Sweet Old World, cemented 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 she released her next album.

Between tour commitments, she spent that time writing, recording and re-recording what would become her watershed album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. After originally recording tracks in Austin with longtime producer, guitarist Gurf Morlix, Lucinda scrapped those sessions and started over in Nashville with musician Steve Earle handling production chores. A third and final version was produced by E Street Band keyboardist, Roy Bittan.

Despite all the angst surrounding the recording, the finished product felt like an epiphany. It was a critical and commercial triumph. Not only did it win a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, it also topped the prestigious Village Voice Critics Poll. The drama surrounding the making of Car Wheels branded her a “perfectionist.” That reputation would be perfectly acceptable for a man. For a woman, it was misogynist shorthand for “difficult” or “temperamental.”

The next few years saw Lu making music at a furious clip (at least for her). 2001 saw the release of Essence, which won a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Performance. World Without Tears followed in 2003 and a couple years later she recorded her first live effort, Live At The Fillmore. By 2007, she had recorded enough material for a double album. But her supposedly artist-friendly label, Lost Highway cautioned against a two-record set. So, her songs were spread out over two separate albums, West and Little Honey, respectively.

In 2009, Lucinda married record company executive Tom Overby. Two years later, she released Blessed, a collection of songs that reflected her newfound marital happiness. Free from her Lost Highway obligations, she and Tom created their own label, Highway 20 Records. Her inaugural effort, 2014’s Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone,” was the two-disc set she’d been wanting to make for seven years. A couple years later, “The Ghosts Of Highway 20” arrived, followed by Good Souls Better Angels in 2020. Later that same year, Lu suffered a stroke at her home is Nashville. During her recovery, she was required to use a cane and couldn’t play guitar, but within a year, she back to herself and back out on the road.

During the pandemic, Lucinda busied herself by recording a series of livestream shows. The six-episode series of themed performances began with Lu’s Jukebox Vol. 1- Runnin’ Down A Dream: A Tom Petty Tribute. She continued throughout 2021 with live tributes to Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Bob Dylan’s Backpages, ‘60s Country Classics, Rockin’ Christmas favorites and The Rolling Stones. Earlier this year, she published her a book, Don’t Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You: A Memoir, which was characteristically withholding and revealing. Now she has returned with her 15th album, Stories From A Rock N’ Roll Heart. The record kicks into gear with the irresistible Stones-y swagger of “Let’s Get The Band Back Together.” A walloping drumbeat collides with stripped-down guitars, swirly Hammond B-3, prowling bass and a tambourine shake. Lyrics act as a call to arms for anyone who began a band in a garage before real life intruded; “We hung together, as long as we could, but sooner or later it was understood, different cities and different towns, and then real life had to come around, some bonds bend but never break, throw it all to the hands of fate.” On the break, guitars pivot between muscular and coruscated riffs, meandering piano and fluttery B3. Lucinda’s world-weary rasp is joined on the refrain by a Gospel-flavored Greek chorus of voices. On the final verse, the arrangement powers down to just strutting bass and a stutter-y beat as Lu offers a toast to those she’s lost, but not forgotten; “And then one day, we turn around, in between the lost and found, some are missing and some are still here, let’s sing a song for the disappeared, let’s raise a glass to the best of friends, here’s to the night that never ends.”

Three tracks here manage to mix sagacity, gravitas empathy and grace. “Hum’s Liquor,” which is powered by shimmery guitars, tripwire bass, woozy Continental Vox organ and a tumble-down beat, is a tender tribute to The Replacements’ original guitarist (and the Minneapolis band’s heart and soul) the late Bob Stinson. Her tremulous vocals wrap around lyrics that trace his self-destructive path; “Every morning it was the same, you were walking down 22nd again, such a lonely waltz of pain, every morning at a quarter to ten/Got his Jack and headed back, to bang on his guitar and drink away another day.” Her vocals, suffused in sorrow, are shadowed by Tommy Stinson, who, in addition to being the ‘Mats’ bassist, is also a compelling singer-songwriter, and of course, Bob’s younger brother. A serpentine guitar solo sidewinds through the arrangement as the final verse firmly rebukes the people who encouraged his self-destructive behavior and later offered sanctimonious eulogies; “Into the black and blue, dragging demons around with you, everybody wants to see the crash, until they see the red lights flash.”

“Jukebox” is more introspective. Plangent acoustic and barbed electric guitars intertwine with keening pedal steel, Honky-Tonk piano, as angular bass and a barely-there beat adds ballast. Succinct lyrics limn that sinking sensation of feeling trapped by your own surroundings; “These days, my world seems so small, I’m a prisoner inside these four walls, going crazy with the sound of my own voice, going crazy if I don’t get out of the house.” But a temporary respite is literally around down the street, at her local bar; They’ve got an old Wurlitzer, it’s a work of art, and I’ve got a handful of quarters, and I know how to ease my lonely heart with Patsy Cline and Muddy Waters.”

Meanwhile, the ramshackle reverie of “Last Call For The Truth,” continues the soul-searching she began with “Jukebox.” The song is anchored by a hi-hat splash, roiling bass, liquid Hammond B3 notes, weepy pedal steel, ticklish guitars and a thumping tom-tom beat. Ensconced at her favorite watering hole, she ponders her “ragtag mystique,” and pines for her lost youth. She also feels she still has something to contribute musically, but wonders if she’s overstayed her welcome; “I’ve seen what happens when you stay too long, but I guess I never get the memo, I always have to hear the last song, before Johnny on the jukebox says go home…Give me one more song to sing along to, give me one more dance to hold you through, give me one more taste of my lost youth, and it’s last call for the truth.” A scorching guitar solo on the break offers a bit of emotional rescue.

This record is packed with superlative tracks, but the stand-outs here are “Stolen Moments” and “This Is Not My Town.” The former originally popped up on Runnin’ Down A Dream, her Lu’s Jukebox tribute to her late, great pal, Tom Petty. Low-slung guitars flicker and bristle atop brawny bass lines, feathery keys and a rattle-trap beat. Lyrics offer a wistful elegy to her friend, her demeanor is heartfelt, but never lachrymose; “From an airplane window, I look out in wonder, at a rainbow through the clouds, thirty thousand feet up in the air, and I swear, you’re with me there, like a prayer, you’re with me there…in stolen moments, you’re riding with me, you’re riding with me again.” A bottleneck solo squalls and keys shiver on the break, quietly illustrating Lu’s prickly but tender nature.

The latter takes a page from The Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone.” A potent combo-platter of Bayou swamp, Texas Blues and greazy Garage Rock, down n’ dirty guitar licks coil around rumbling bass, Hoodoo keys and a backbeat so tight, you could bounce a quarter off of it. Her ornery indignation swells with each deftly turned phrase; “…Can anybody see what’s going down, they’re sending in all these clowns, to play on all your fears, to tell you what you want to hear, to play on all your fears.” Margo Price chimes in and their dissonant harmonic blend reflects the divisive fearmongering that has gripped the Country these last eight years. On the break, skittery a rhythm guitar see-saws, as Vox Jaguar organ fills dart through the mix. A querulous guitar solo is unleashed as the song builds to a rollicking crescendo, apropos of nothing, Lu reminds us “I’m a Queen Bee, buzzing ‘round your house.” It’s a stinging rebuke that simply swings.

Other intriguing songs include two collaborations with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. “New York Comeback” opens tentatively with flinty guitars, agile bass, sylvan Hammond B3 and a sly shuffle rhythm. Lu’s tremulous drawl dovetails nicely with the Boss’ familiar croak and Patti’s pliant harmonies. “Rock N’ Roll Heart” is an anthemic bruiser that speaks to Lu, Bruce and Patti’s shared experience finding their voices through music; “Blue Collar boy in a no-win town has to get out before they take him down, playing that guitar is all he needs, follow that dream, wherever it leads, outside of the outsiders, everything changed when he heard that song,”

The final two tracks form a diptych of sorts, that attempt to unpack the mysterious properties and saving grace involved in making music. “Where The Song Will Find Me” matches descending bass lines and a time-keeper beat across a Noir-ish melody. The addition of swelling strings, horns Chamberlin and Novachord adds splashes of color to the monochrome soundscape. There’s a weary ache to Lu’s voice as she attempts to explain what it takes to follow her muse; “I find myself alone, in the madding crowd, on the bustling New York streets, people talking loud/Sitting on a stool in the corner of a bar, the errand of a fool has carried me this far, to a place where the song can find me, to a place where the song can find me.” On the break, a buzzsaw guitar solo is quickly supplanted by spiraling bottleneck riffs that bend and moan. The final verse is a bit of a vision quest; “I wanna feel that moment when the song can find me, I wanna feel that moment when the song can save me.”

Finally, “Never Gonna Fade Away” tenders a promise, no matter what the world throws at her, she’s here to stay. Plucky guitars partner with wily bass lines and churchy Hammond B3, atop a a percussive tattoo in ¾ time. Lyrics sketch out a series of tableaus; “When nothing makes me laugh, and I feel like getting trashed, and I’m hung up on the past and life is moving by too fast” or “When the sparks don’t fly and nothing’s lighting up the sky, and there’s no reason for why and all I want to do is cry,” whatever trial or tribulation crosses her path, she pledges “I’m never gonna fade away.” It’s an uncompromising finish to a stellar record.

Lucinda relied on a wolfpack of pickers and players to bring this album to fruition. The low-end was anchored by bassist Steve Mackie, plus Will Sykes and Fred Eltringham on drums. A veritable guitar army included Stuart Mathis, Travis Stephens, Joshua Grage and Derek Cruz. Lawrence Rothman arranged and recorded strings, horns, Chamberlain and Novachord. Lu also received some superstar assists from The Boss and Patti Scialfa, Angel Olson, Tommy Stinson, Margo Price Buddy Miller, Sophie Gault and Siobhan Maher Kennedy on baking vocals, as well as Tom Petty/Heartbreaker drummer Steve Ferrone, Stevie Ray Vaughan/Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans and her longtime guitarist Doug Pettibone. Production chores were handled by Lu, Tom Overby and Ray Kennedy.

Simply put, this album is a triumph. Lean and unfussy melodies are matched by moodily elegant lyrics. Stories From A Rock N’ Roll Heart is easily Lucinda’s best effort since Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.