While it would be an overstatement to say Americana was invented solely to describe Lucinda Williams’ groundbreaking mixture of literate singer/songwriter Folk and bluesy, energized Country Rock, delivered with a twangy and soulful enunciation, she had a lot to do with its creation.
For years, Williams had trouble finding radio airplay and record labels, despite the worth of her material. After two small-label, finding-her-muse albums, her self-titled 1988 release — on super-hip Indie label Rough Trade — showed her strengths in blossom with tunes like “Passionate Kisses,” “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” and “Big Red Sun Blues.” But she needed four years to get a follow-up out on another small label, Sweet Old World, and six more for her breakthrough, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. By then there were influential new labels dedicated to growing Americana music, such as her current one, Lost Highway. And radio stations began playing it, too, like the local WNKU.
“I had a hard time getting a record deal at first because my stuff fell in the cracks between Country and Rock,” she says during a recent phone interview. “They didn’t have Americana then, or AltRock or AltCountry. That was just before the Rough Trade album came out in the late-1980s. I got a lot of interest from labels, but I couldn’t get signed for anything. They just didn’t know how to market it.”
The daughter of a prize-winning poet, Williams — who is 58 and was born in Lake Charles, La.
— has honed an uncommonly insightful, sometimes sensual and sometimes contemplative writing style. It’s also personal — ideas come to her from life right as she’s experiencing it, although it might take a while for her to create a fully formed song out of her collected observations.
On her latest release, Blessed, for instance, one powerful and stately song — the melancholy “Copenhagen” — concerns her learning of a friend’s death while Williams’ in the Denmark on a wintry day. She identifies the subject as her longtime personal manager, Frank Callari, who died in 2007.
“We worked together about 10 years,” Williams says. “It happened the way it happens in the song. We were over there touring, had the evening off and got news that Frank had suddenly died. He took a nap and never woke up; he had some health issues. Most of the melody was pretty spontaneous. I don’t ever have a problem with that, tell you truth. It’s so cathartic for me, so therapeutic.”
Another new song, “Kiss Like Your Kiss,” might be familiar to many — it was already used on HBO’s romantic vampire series True Blood (and received a Grammy nomination because of it). But it wasn’t written about vampires — it bespeaks heartfelt, uncomplicated love toward her husband, Tom Overby, whom she married onstage in Minneapolis in 2009. (He now is her manager.)
“That came out really easily, actually,” she explains. “I don’t have that many sweet love songs in my repertoire — sweet but not mushy. They’re not easy to write, I guess. You can’t work too hard on those songs; they have to be spontaneous. I’ve been doing this for quite a while now and am just getting better at my craft, so I am able to do more and different things.”
Throughout her career, Williams has willingly lent her voice to other artists’ records; sometimes providing backing vocals, sometimes lead. That’s how she got to know her current tour-mate Amos Lee. And she also contributed to Over the Rhine’s most recent release.
Williams has two more cameos coming up. One is contributing to Rodney Crowell’s newest Joe Henry-produced project, featuring songs co-written with memoirist Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club). The other has a strong Cincinnati connection — Williams is singing lead on two songs on transformative Memphis Soul guitarist Steve Cropper’s upcoming Dedicated tribute album to a King Records’ act of the 1950s, Lowman Pauling and the “5” Royales.
Pauling played guitar, sang bass and wrote many of the R&B act’s songs, including the immortal “Dedicated to the One I Love.” It was a hit for The Shirelles and Mamas and Papas, but the “5” Royales never had Pop success.
“I was really surprised I hadn’t know about them,” Williams says. “I did ‘Dedicated to the One I Love,’ ” which I didn’t even know (Pauling) had written.”
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