May 25, 2008
When Time dubbed Lucinda Williams “America’s Greatest Songwriter” in 2001, it wasn’t exactly a news bulletin to those who had followed her career for the previous two decades. She became known as a songwriter first, despite a stunning recorded catalog of her self-written work. But the fledgling Americana format soon became her home, and she returned the favor by becoming its first big star.
She cut her teeth on the folk music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. A native of Louisiana, she spent the late sixties and early seventies playing the local clubs in New Orleans, before moving to Austin, TX in 1974. There was a burgeoning country-rock scene in that city, and she fit in perfectly. She created a demo tape that caught the attention of Folkways Records, who signed her to a deal. In 1978, she released her first album, Ramblin’, which featured her take on various country, folk and blues standards.
It wasn’t until 1980 that the world was introduced to Lucinda Williams the songwriter on a formal basis. Her second album, Happy Woman Blues, was her first to feature self-written material. It was a polite collection that didn’t push any musical boundaries, but it established her as a singer-songwriter. In what would become a maddening trend for her followers, it would take another eight years before she’d release another album, as a development deal with CBS Records ended without any commercial releases, slowing down her momentum as a recording artist.
She partnered with British indie label Rough Trade instead, and in 1988, released Lucinda Williams. The album was the first major demonstration of her talents. Though it wasn’t a commercial success, the critical response was rapturous. More importantly, Williams became widely known among musicians looking for top-notch material. Over the next decade, nearly half of the album would be recorded by other artists. Patty Loveless started the trend by recording “The Night’s Too Long,” a hit for her in 1990. Emmylou Harris covered “Crescent City,” Tom Petty took on “Changed the Locks” and Joy Lynn White recorded “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad.”
The biggest cover, however, was courtesy of Mary Chapin Carpenter. Her take on “Passionate Kisses” was a top five country hit, and earned Lucinda Williams a Grammy in 1994 for Best Country Song. By that time, she’d already released her stellar 1992 album, Sweet Old World. The album featured deeply personal songs, including two about a friend of hers who had committed suicide: the title track and “Pineola.” Emmylou Harris again turned to Williams for inspiration, and included “Sweet Old World” in her landmark 1995 album Wrecking Ball.
Williams fans waited a maddening six years after Sweet Old World for her next release, but it was worth the wait. 1998′s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was not only a career-making album for Williams, it put the emerging Americana format on the map as well. Receiving universal critical acclaim, the album also won Williams a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. More impressively, on the strength of college radio and favorable press, it became the first Americana album to be certified gold.
It was another three years before her next album, Essence. While it was well-received, it didn’t match the critical acclaim of Car Wheels. It did net her a third Grammy, however, as “Get Right With God” was named Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 2002, making Williams the only woman to win Grammys in all three of the Rock, Country and Folk fields.
In 2003, she released World Without Tears, which was followed by a live collection in 2005. The combination of a long-lasting relationship terminating and the death of her mother formed the basis for her most recent album, West, which was released in 2007 and earned her two Grammy nominations for the raunchy track “Come On.”
In the fall of 2007, Williams performed a series of concerts in both New York and Los Angeles over the course of several nights. On each night, she performed one of five studio albums in its entirety – Lucinda Williams, Sweet Old World, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Essence and World Without Tears – along with a second set of other material. Through her website, she made live CDs of each night’s performances available to her fans.
- “Passionate Kisses,” 1988
- “Changed the Locks,” 1988
- “Sweet Old World,” 1992
- “Drunken Angel,” 1998
- “Get Right With God,” 2001
- “Come On,” 2007
- Lucinda Williams, 1988
- Sweet Old World, 1992
- Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, 1998
- World Without Tears, 2003
- West, 2007
- Grammy: Best Country Song (“Passionate Kisses”), 1994
- Grammy: Best Contemporary Folk Album (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), 1999
- Grammy: Best Female Rock Vocal Performance (“Get Right With God”), 2002