The Essential: Lucinda Williams

Shot by Danny Clinch

This article is the first in a new occasional series celebrating the great women artists we all love in the country and Americana realms, with a short bio and six or so recommended songs from their careers, as a primer for new listeners, or just to remind fans of great music from their back catalogue — as the personal choices of our writers no doubt these pieces will inspire debate on their selections from recordings by our selected artists.

If there is a Queen of Americana surely it is Lucinda Williams, native of Lake Charles, Louisiana, with a recording career stretching back to 1978, who continues to tour and produce new material matching the high standards of her best.

An original writer of the highest calibre, her songs are inspired by every day life, especially broken relationships, and those living life on the edge, and have a gritty , emotional urgency which comes straight from the heart, and are hence always believable and involving.

Her distinctive southern drawl is unmistakeable, and perfectly matched to the emotion of her songs–a marriage made in heaven.

After two early albums in the folk/blues genre, the first in 1978, it was her album ‘Lucinda Williams’ on UK label Rough Trade released in 1988 which brought her critical acclaim, if not commercial success. Williams is recorded as saying that at that time the record industry found her ‘too country for rock, and too rock for country’, and her Rough Trade deal came out of the blue following rejections from US labels.

The first song choice, from this album, is her original recording of ‘Passionate Kisses’, later recorded by Mary Chapin Carpenter, and winning her a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance in 1994, and for Williams a Grammy for Best Country Song the same year. The positive female empowerment theme combines with a memorable chorus and melodic hook, combinations to characterise many of her later songs.

Her follow up album ‘Sweet Old World’ released in 1992 was well received by critics, though not finding commercial success, but the stand out title track, our second song choice, was covered by Emmylou Harris on her ‘Wrecking Ball’ album. Dealing with the suicide of a close friend, it nonetheless strikes a positive note in reflecting on what the lost friend has left behind.

It was her next album, released in 1998, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ which established her reputation as a leading writer and performer, and brought her both critical and commercial success. Combining autobiographical detail with impressionistic lyrics, that trade mark emotional intensity, sass and sexiness the album also features the distinctive guitar led Americana arrangements which have become her trademark. Williams toured the world in 2019 with a special set revisiting the album, in full, with her stories of how each song came to be written, a rare insight into the writing process, ranging from the childhood memories of her upbringing in the southern US ( the title track) to graffiti waiting to be interpreted (“2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten”)–an intimate and memorable experience.

Any song from this album could feature in our ‘Essential’ list, but the two we’ve chosen are the title track, and ‘Joy’, a raunchy song riffing on a single chord, brimming with energy and anger, which Williams famously performed with a stunning guest appearance from Bruce Springsteen at Shepherds Bush Empire London in 2006.

Her follow up in 2001 ‘Essence’ combined a softer side on songs like ‘Lonely Girls’, and ‘I Envy the Wind’ with a return to her rocking side with ‘Get Right With God’, a staple of her live sets, where she always enjoys the opportunity to rock out. Our fifth song is ‘Blue’, from this album, a song of fragile beauty, reflecting on dealing with depression, which has affected both Williams, and her mother.

Throughout the noughties she released albums every couple of years, including ‘World Without Tears ‘ ( 2003) featuring the heart wrought ‘( Did You only Love Me For ) Those Three Days’ and ‘Little Honey’ (2008) with stand out track ‘If Wishes Were Horses’.

Our final ‘Essential’ song comes from her acclaimed 2014 double album ‘Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone’, like ‘Car Wheels On a Gravel Road’ one could pick any track, but our selection is ‘When I Look at The World’ , its lyrics combining the downers thrown at her with a reflection that life itself is a beautiful thing to be savoured:

I’ve been out of luck, I’ve been talked about
I’ve been locked up, I’ve been shut out
I’ve had some bad dreams, I’ve been filled with regret
I’ve made a mess of things, I’ve been a total wreck
I’ve been disrespected, been taken for a ride
I’ve been rejected and had my patience tried

But then I look at the world and all its glory
I look at the world and it’s a different story
Each time I look at the world’

Essential Songs of Lucinda Williams:
Passionate Kisses
Sweet Old World
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
When I Look at The World

Piece written by David Jarman

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