In praise of difficult women
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
I first came to Lucinda Williams via Steve Earle, after the alt-country icon helped produce Williams’ stunning 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Ironically, it was the always-outspoken Earle’s characterization of collaborating with Williams as the “least amount of fun I’ve ever had working on a record” that drew me to the singer/songwriter.
What can I say? I’ve always had a thing for difficult women, with the understanding that “difficult” is often code for “smart” and “knows what she wants” and “isn’t going to settle for anything less.”
In the case of Car Wheels, which would not emerge into the world until it had gone through three record labels (the first two folded in the Great Music Industry Downturn of the late 1990s), a series of producers and studios in several cities. Indeed, Williams recorded the whole thing and then scrapped it—twice—before finally getting the record she wanted from the beginning. In doing so, the singer/songwriter who has always steadfastly gone her own way acquired a reputation for being a “perfectionist,” which I suspect is sometimes just a more polite way of saying “difficult.”
However, as Williams often says, “You can’t praise the work and criticize the process.” And in this case, the work more than speaks for itself.
Although Car Wheels is hardly Williams’ first album—she’d been making music for decades and had won her first Grammy before starting the album’s protracted recording process—it’s the one that catapulted her from niche artist to musician with a broad and wide-ranging fan base. It went gold, earned Williams another Grammy, made every year-end best-of list in existence and was a bona fide breakout.
Even better, the album acted as a perfect distillation for Williams’ impeccable songwriting, and a confirmation that by refusing to compromise and demanding that people trust her judgment above all others, she could deliver indelible art that would more than validate the method in her madness.
Maybe Williams had something to prove and maybe she didn’t—but she proved it anyway.
Like many songwriters who have come before and since, Williams found herself inspired by Bob Dylan. Certainly, his way with words is something to aspire to—and as the daughter of renowned poet and professor Miller Williams, Lucinda knows a thing or two about how to string a song together. Her songs reflect an unflinching honesty that one can only suspect is intrinsic to her as a person, while creating characters and situations that are rife with the details of daily life, and are, therefore, eminently relatable, even if you’ve never been to any of the many geographic locales that are peppered throughout her lyrics.
She sums up the essence of a small-town breakup with “Six Blocks Away,” the first track of 1992’s Sweet Old World: “He sleeps all alone on Second Street/With a roof over his head and food to eat/But he can hardly make it day to day ‘cause/Everything he wants is six blocks away, six blocks away. Her song about the 1978 suicide of Southern poet Frank Stanford, “Pineola,” contains as fine an opening verse as you’ll ever hear from a country song: “When Daddy told me what happened/I couldn’t believe what he just said/Sunny shot himself with a 44/And they found him lyin’ on his bed.” With “Drunken Angel” just one of the collection of powerhouse songs that make up Car Wheels, Williams sings about Blaze Foley, a little-known Austin songwriter who had a big effect on the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, and Williams herself. The song is a mixed eulogy for a man who, by most accounts, was beloved and his own worst enemy, but the lines “Followers would cling to you/Hang around just to meet you/Some threw roses at your feet/And watch you pass out on the street/Drunken Angel” more succinctly sum up the relationship fans have with the often-troubled artists they deify than any episode of Behind the Music.
But Williams gleaned more inspiration from Dylan than just his lyricism. She also learned that her voice, which is raspy, distinctive and unorthodox, may be limited in range, but what she perceived as its weaknesses could, in fact, be repurposed as strengths. And it is certainly true that when you listen to any of her albums, from her self-titled debut album to her breakthrough release Car Wheels to the seven albums that have come since, up to and including last year’s critically acclaimed double album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, Williams’ voice is perfectly suited to her storytelling. As an NPR reviewer said, “In terms of pure expression, no singer in popular music can touch Williams when she’s calling from the lonely outskirts of Despairville.”
Having seen Williams perform on a number of occasions, I can attest that she does not disappoint. She’s a practiced, charismatic performer, and watching her bring her songs to life with the same sense of self-possession that informs her recording process is an exercise in high-quality entertainment. When she comes to Bellingham for a Weds., July 22 show at the Mount Baker Theatre, she’ll bring songs from Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, her critically acclaimed back catalogue, as well as the stories and anecdotes gleaned from a life lived without compromise. If this is what a “difficult” woman looks like, every woman should be happy to bear that distinction.
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