Born and Raised in Louisiana, Lucinda Williams is one of the loudest mouths of the South. Despite her critically acclaimed raw talent and poetic lyricism, she struggled to gain favor with the majority of listeners—but those in the music industry idolized her music. She insisted on having complete creative authority over the albums she released. A double-edged sword that kept her music authentic, but also cut her chances with getting signed on larger labels. Her rise to fame had been cut short, partially because Williams lacked continuity when releasing her earlier albums. After releasing Happy Woman Blues (1980), it took her eight years to release the next one.
But those who heard her worshipped her animated voice, a true felony of melody. Besides her voice, Williams is a well-rounded instrumentalist—she first discovered her tune with music on the zither, which quickly nudged her to pick up a guitar. Her career began when Williams was in high school in the late 60s, a revolutionary time for American music; she started performing as a folk artist for the locals of New Orleans. And no one could put the rules on her from the beginning, she was removed from school for refusing to pledge the American flag. Although Williams never received her diploma, her father taught her everything he knew about the craft of writing. Miller Williams was a literature professor and published poet, he had always proofread anything his daughter wrote.
In the early 80s, Williams traveled around endlessly to get her name spoken from New York to Los Angeles. Everyone from the labels loved her daring potential, but no one knew how to market her—she still isn’t afraid to show up to an interview with a black eye. She lit the match in 1988, when she released Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade, then Chameleon, Koch). That was one of the turning points in Williams’ career, musical alchemy in the making. Williams and her guitarist/co-producer, Gurf Morlix, put country, rock, blues, and folk music in a melting pot of sound.
“Side of the Road” by Lucinda Williams (Live ACL 1989)
When the 90s rolled around, she turned her back on bigger labels to maintain power over her content. On a smaller label, she released Sweet Old World (1992, Chameleon). This album, a triumphant memorandum, dug deep into the roots of folk. It was the first of hers that emphasized regret. Critics adored it, and it also gave her the opportunity to work with Rosanne Cash on tour.
Williams’ best-selling album is Car Wheels on a Gravel Road ( 1998, Mercury), winning her a Grammy and a glowing review in Rolling Stone. It took six years of devoted polishing and finishing touches before Williams was satisfied. She always strived for that bare-boned, garage sound in any album she put out. But this was her first album that was nationally noticed, she finally received some mainstream praise. This one featured one of her hit songs, “Joy,” sending a strong kick to the gut to those who took away her happiness. It also featured “Can’t Let Go,” another hit that came with the punch.
“Can’t Let Go” by Lucinda Williams (Live from Austin, TX)
She released several albums later but took matters into her own hands when she released The Ghosts of Highway 20 (2016, Highway 20 Records) on her own label. It was a vibrant ballad of reminiscence and family history, it meditated on all the pivotal moments of her childhood. She released it a year after her father had passed away. She had even incorporated some of her father’s lines of poetry into her lyrics, like “Dust.”
In an interview with PBS two years ago, she was asked about her writing process. She said any time she’d be in a bar, she’d listen and write down any words that stuck with her. She added, “a lot of times on a cocktail napkin.” She’s still determined to ride the roads as a true grit musician. Today she’s 67 years old, her voice has slowly evolved into a rustic rasp that blends well with her style of music. She’ll be releasing a new album on April 23 called Good Souls Better Angels.
Much of her music still sits in the shadows, but Williams admits in her lyrics, “I’d take the glory any day over the fame.”
Written by Ashley Cantrelle