It's taken me more than a decade to come around to Lucinda Williams. When I was in middle school, my dad came suddenly into my room and put a CD in my stereo with no explanation. I set down my alg/trig homework and watched him carefully. He finally said, just before the music started, "Listen to this song, Kate. I've never heard anything so...gripping." And then he sat with his eyes closed until the song was over. And that was the first time I heard Lucinda Williams. I'm not even sure now what the song was, but that's the thing about Williams' music: many of her songs could be the most gripping song my dad (or anyone) has ever heard. I did not agree at the time, but remembered her name in association with her effect on my father. Now, on the event of her 10th studio album being released, I finally get it.
Williams has been releasing music since 1978, and has not strayed far from the Americana/Country Rock sound that has made her one of country music's most recognizable and celebrated voices. Williams has steered clear of the Toby Keith-style hijacking of contemporary country music in the direction of jingoism, racism, and right-wing politics, choosing instead to write about love, death, heartbreak, and passion in constantly expanding terms. She deals with old subject matters, but her pen is fresh on every album. In 2002, Time magazine named Williams America's Best Songwriter. (WHAT NOW, Toby Keith!? But I digress...)
Here is one of my favorite LW songs, the titular track from the album that exploded her into the spotlight in 1998, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road:
There are a lot of things to love about Lucinda Williams, the way I see it. Her voice is not smooth or soothing or well-trained; hence the ten-plus years it took me to want to listen to it. But the songs she's writing weren't meant to be sung sweetly, I see now. I wouldn't believe Eva Cassidy if she sang that her tears were mixed with dirt, or even just saying a tough-sounding word like "righteously" (which is the title of another of my favorite Williams songs). I believe Lucinda. Her strength as a songwriter, besides a prodigious ability to make overwrought material newly passionate and/or heartbreaking, is that she writes from a female perspective without depending on stereotypes. In country music especially, women trying to get a corner on the badass market tend to go Gretchen Wilson-style overboard and spell out that they are Redneck Women not to be offered foofy drinks or girly men. Williams doesn't have to name-drop WalMart to hint at how hard she's got it (one of my all-time biggest musical pet peeves), or resort to gender stereotypes of both men and women to prove that she's a girl that can hang with the boys. In a genre rife with essentialism, Williams offers nuance.
As I mentioned earlier, Williams is releasing a new album March 1st, entitled Blessed. Her website is calling for audience submissions of what the word "blessed" means to us (see? there ARE ways to connect to listeners without calling for fellow Redneck Women to shout "Hell Yeah!" at you!), and she's posting the results as they come in. NPR, meanwhile, is streaming the entire album here until its release date. If you're new to Lucinda Williams, I envy the catching up you have to do. If you're not, perhaps a "Hell, yeah!" is in order after all...
Photo by Annie Leibovitz