It's been a long time since she was driving gravel roads, but Lucinda Williams has had her share of hard traveling. Before her recent breakthrough success, she was playing the Bluebird Theater in Denver, a little too far down on Colfax, and she found herself double-booked in the tiny venue, having to wrap up a show by 9 p.m., long before she had gotten her performance fix satisfied.
"There ought to be a law against doing a gig this early," Williams told her audience that Halloween eve. After nearly a year of having her then-unreleased album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, sabotaged by her record company, she came into Denver ready to rock on the last night of her tour, only to find herself stuffed into an early 7:30 slot on a two-show night at the Bluebird. "That sucks," she said of the double-show, double-admission, pack-'em-in attitude of the club. Her devoted fans couldn't get enough of her but had to settle for 90 minutes.
A year later, thriving on the success of Car Wheels, Williams had stepped up a notch to the Ogden Theater, a little bigger, a little closer to the heart of the city. This time, however, Nobody in Particular Presents had enthusiastically oversold the show, prompting a visit from the fire marshal and nearly shutting down the venue after the opening act. The lengthy delay finally found frustrated fans heading home early, thinning out the crowd enough that the fire marshal allowed Williams to come onstage, after slapping NIPP with a hefty fine.
Finally, Williams' most recent scheduled Colorado appearance, as part of last summer's Telluride Bluegrass Festival, was cancelled after a stint opening shows for Bob Dylan was followed by an invitation to spend the summer touring with Tom Petty, prompting her third Telluride cancellation this decade.
Fans of her music have salivated over the prospect of a Williams appearance in Colorado ever since discovering her early Folkways recordings, Ramblin' on My Mind (1979), a collection of blues and country standards, and Happy Woman Blues (1980), the underground classic featuring her first release of original material.
Williams is a fiercely independent artist, though not quite the "demanding perfectionist and difficult diva" record company executives have tried to paint her as. Defying categorization, she blends a sense of lyricism inherited from her father, poet Miller Williams -- he read at Clinton's second inauguration -- with an edgy acoustic energy that evokes the likes of Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt and Chrissie Hynde.
The singer-songwriter paid her dues while superstar friends like Mary-Chapin Carpenter ("Passionate Kisses") and Emmy Lou Harris ("Sweet Old World" and "Crescent City") sold out amphitheaters after scoring hits with Williams' tunes. After honing her chops in the Austin music scene, Williams subsequently made the jump to rock, beginning with a self-titled album in 1988 that blended her folk, blues and country pedigree with her rock 'n' roll attitude, while stubbornly resisting her label's desire for a more mainstream package.
She continued the tradition with 1992's Sweet Old World and last year's Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which rattled radio programmers and some vendors with the opening track's clean but suggestive lyrics. Williams enticed her listeners with nuance and tone as she sang: "Not a day goes by I don't think about you/ You left your mark on me. It's permanent, a tattoo/ Pierce the skin and the blood runs through" and the song's most powerfully delivered refrain "Oh, my baby." No singer gets more mileage out of a simple "Oh" than the uniquely expressive Williams.
Lucinda Williams wastes no time, in concert or in the studio, testifying to her ability to wield a rock riff and a haunting lyric. The often languorous quality in her performances reflects the hazy regions she sometimes inhabits as a singer-songwriter, the cumulative exhaustion of the road and a sultry playfulness that is evident whenever she steps on a stage and intensifies as she feeds off the audience.
The economy of releasing only five albums in 20 years comes in part from Williams' sense of musical integrity, or what record executives have often called stubbornness. There are no embarrassments in her songbook, and there is no mistaking her voice, both the intoxicating quality of her singing and the vivid personal imagery resounding through her lyrics.
The rollicking title track on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, for example, captures the Southern memories of her youth, with images flying on by on route from Macon to Jackson while a child of 4 or 5 looks out the window, "little bit of dirt mixed with tears," encapsulating a rambling life of motion. Equally characteristic is "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten," seducing listeners with a bluesy riff wrapped around the lyrics of a lover proposing a joint suicide. A single cryptic image from the song's refrain, "June bug vs. hurricane," succinctly sums up the tone and aptly characterizes Williams' penchant for embracing eloquent loners and elegant losers.
Williams typically reserves her most hopeful tone for her most desperate songs. "Drunken Angel" is the third in a trilogy of songs for friends who committed suicide, including "Sweet Old World" and "Pineola." The newest is a more demanding approach to the topic, broached through its deceptively straightforward lyrics. In anyone else's hands, a song like this could be a real downer, but with Williams' melodic hooks behind her lyrical intensity and pinpoint imagery, the song hits an unexpectedly uplifting vein: "Blood spilled out from the hole in your heart/Over the strings of your guitar/ The worn down places in the wood/ That once made you feel so good."
"You wouldn't believe how many people come up to me and comment about my songs about people dying ... asking me if I know someone who died," Williams once told her Colorado audience. "What do you say to someone like that? What planet are you from, buddy?"
Williams is gradually losing her anonymity as one of the best unknown artists of her day, although she still resists the "pop sensibility" often necessary for commercial success. She is notorious for standing up to record labels, and her staunch insistence on creative control has yielded her more record labels than albums. The albums are unquestionably worth waiting for, and her hearty touring approach keeps the faithful from too long a drought. While Car Wheels was lingering in limbo, hardcore fans circulated a bootleg CD, splicing together her new songs from various concerts and radio appearances and making her stalemating label cringe.
Williams' signature piece is the plaintive anthem "Passionate Kisses." Far from a generational cry of entitlement, the song demands the bare essentials, "a comfortable bed ... warm clothes ... a full house and a rock 'n' roll band." There's rarely any doubt onstage or in the seats that Williams is bone-deep in her passions, enjoying what her talent has earned her after years of shouting out to the night, "give me what I deserve 'cause it's my right."