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
I have her in the “fellow travelers” category – I have several of her early albums but quite purchasing her product because she is not a good singer – her primary influence is as a songwriter and a fine one at that
I personally love Williams’ voice; the way it cracks around the edges of her phrases really adds something to the songs, which are great in their own right. The best way I can describe the effect is “sizzling.” Personal favorite is “Can’t Let Go.”
I agree with Dan. I love her voice. In some ways, she reminds me of a female Bruce Springsteen. Bruce doesn’t have the greatest voice, but his songwriting and the passion with which he sings makes up for it. Although not one of her bigger hits, I can listen to the song “Greenville” over and over and over. I can say that about very few songs by very few artists. Emmylou in the background doesn’t hurt…
if it wasn’t for her rather limited vocal abilities makeing it a little hard for her sound at ears level, the unrestricted impact of her music on the brain would almost call for a warning label on the cover.
her album car wheels on a gravel road is outstanding, even though it was by no means “right in time”.
Although I could argue on a few of the placements so far (i.e. moving Matraca Berg & Patsy Montana up a few spots), I have enjoyed the list and look forward to the conversations started as we explore the A-level women of country music history.
I think it’s good that she has been widely respected with her peers. Lucinda is just one of those artists who is hard, if not impossible, to simply pigeonhole and put into a neat little genre category. As Tom has said, the impact of her music is really unrestricted, and there’s really no other way it could be with her.
I got her West album the other day. She has a great voice
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is one of the few country albums to make The Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums
I admit Lucinda’s voice is an acquired taste, at various times described as sort of a lazy Louisiana drawl (she is from down in those parts). Then again, once that taste is acquired, it tends to stay and resonate with people. Besides, I don’t think absolutely polished voices, especially in the roots-oriented material Lucinda does, are an absolute must all the time.