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[whitespace] Lucinda Williams
Photograph by James Minchin

Literally Literary: Lucinda Williams writes lyrics that have more in common with Faulkner and Welty than the Grand Ol' Opry.

In the American Idiom

Lucinda Williams finally earns the respect her 'Essence' commands

By Gina Arnold

ONE HATES to sound like one of those humorless, conspiracy-addled feminist types, but every now and then, the truth will out, and the fact of the matter remains: If Bob Dylan had been a woman, he might have had a career much like that of Lucinda Williams. That is to say, instead of being embraced by the intelligentsia at the tender age of 22, it would have taken him 18 years to get his first major-label recording contract, 20 to get his first Grammy and 47 to realize his talent in a way that the rest of the world could appreciate.

It hardly seems fair--and yet, there you have it. What other excuse is there than gender inequality? Because, for some reason, Williams, who has recently been called "America's best songwriter" by writers at Newsweek, Rolling Stone and pretty much every other major media outlet, has taken that long to become as acclaimed as Dylan.

And yet she and Dylan have much in common. For example, both artists began by singing folk (Lucinda's first LP consisted of blues covers, as did Dylan's). Both are in love with American idioms, poetry and the outlaw life, although Dylan's outlawry is more theory than fact, while Williams', alas, borders on reality. And both are worshiped--downright worshiped--by a fan base that sees in their lyrics a beauty, a truth and a significance about life that most modern music lacks.

But there the similarity may end. Like most women, Williams writes a lot about personal relationships, which may or may not be her own. Dylan doesn't. And although he often likes to fantasize about a wild childhood with the circus or worse, Dylan actually grew up in a stable household in Minnesota before making it big as a "Bohemian" in Greenwich Village.

Williams' childhood was truly Bohemian--and a lot more trying. The daughter of a famed, but itinerant poet, Miller Williams, and a mother with mental problems, she has lived the kind of poverty-stricken, wandering, heartbreak-raddled life that results in songs that reek with emotional authenticity.

Technically, Williams writes what is called "contemporary folk"--which is to say, music that is based on the blues but sounds more like the mean reds, and the result has been a career which has slipped through the cracks of the industry, often almost disappearing as her work is dismissed by the business as being "too uncommercial."

UNTIL NOW, THAT IS. For many years, the secret pleasure of the critical cognoscenti whose main income was due to covers of her songs (Mary Chapin Carpenter did "Passionate Kisses," Tom Petty did "Changed the Locks"), Williams has finally reached the apex of fame and fortune: she's performed on Saturday Night Live, been profiled in The New Yorker and bought herself a brand-new truck.

She may not be a household word yet, but she's gone one better: two years ago, her record Car Wheels on a Gravel Road earned a Grammy award and acclaim beyond measure. Now, at the age of 47, she is the reigning queen of rock--and a sex symbol of sorts to men and women who aren't really interested in the nubile preteen breastiness of most of today's pop superstars.

Williams, a Louisiana native, often performs her songs clad in a tighty-tight New York Dolls T-shirt and leather pants, her bleached hair tucked under a cowboy hat. It's an image that has done much to help her be noticed by magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone--and it also gives curious listeners a clue that her music, which sometimes gets termed "country," isn't exactly what it seems on the surface.

Her music is steeped in the sounds of the American South, but it's not the corny country South of Nashville and the Grand Ol' Opry but the more literary South of writers like Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Walker Percy. Or at least it would be, if those writers had written more about sex.

In fact, Williams' new record, Essence (Lost Highway Records) has a number of sex songs on it, a circumstance that can only serve to heat up her already red-hot m.o. But the sex on Essence isn't gratuitous. If anything, it is sweet and sad, the two adjectives that best describe Williams herself and the adjectives she uses to describe the songs sung by lonely girls, a group she counts herself among. In that particular song ("Lonely Girls"), Williams drones a mere 21 words over and over at a snail's pace, but she gets away with it, because her voice--or rather her singing persona--and her music are so intensely personal.

Lots of the songs on Essence are similarly simply sung. "Steal Your Love," "I Envy the Wind" and "Blue" all take place in the same extremely quiet, extremely slow meter. The CD case notes five different instruments on the last-named track, including bass, violin, viola and various guitars, but you'd never notice them to speak of--it sounds like an acoustic, or even a capella, number.

The record was produced by the gorgeous guitar whiz kid Charlie Sexton, who must be all of 25 now (and incidentally, plays guitar with Dylan in his off-time), and he has done a wonderful job achieving a subtlety that eluded Mitch Froom, the producer of Williams' last LP. His lead guitar work on songs like "Are You Down" and "Essence" is lovely as well.

IN ADDITION to its spare and unobtrusive instrumentation, Essence downplays some of the complex storytelling and depressing narratives that have made previous LPs--Sweet Old World, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Lucinda Williams--both memorable and somewhat torturous to listen to. There are some striking images here--"Rain turns the dirt into mud/Warm and messy, like your love"--but in general, Essence is about mood, rather than incident.

That mood is somber and reflective, and at times self-destructive, but not unattractive for all that. Still, people who wonder why Lucinda Williams has never had a big hit can stop right now. The lady is a downer, and in general, downers don't sell. It isn't until the seventh track, which happens to be the title cut and single, that the tempo picks up--going from snail's pace to snake trot--and an actual chorus and catchy tune appear.

The song oozes sex, but not necessarily in a positive way. "Baby, sweet baby, I want to feel your breath/Even though you like to flirt with death/Baby, sweet baby, can't get enough/Please come find me and help me get fucked up." It's a typical Williams romance with a sexy guy who is some kind of bad news in the singer's life.

But as scary as the song is, it marks a change in the album's overall tone. From there on in, things lighten up a little. Instead of the blues, Lucinda starts singing other idioms--bluegrass-tinged gospel, for example, ("Get Right With God," a song about Pentecostal snake-handling) and plain old folk ("Bus to Baton Rouge" and "Reason to Cry"). None of these songs are what I'd call cheery, but they are quite beautiful in their evocation of emotion, time and place.

Of course, singing along to Lucinda Williams would be a bit of a sacrilege, since her metier really is one of personal artistry, that is, total immersion in her, well, her essence. You either find her life, her career, her music and her stories incredibly romantic and appealing--or you don't.

But even if you don't find her sad, sweet, fucked-up persona particularly romantic, you have to admire her for being such a genuine artist. What she brings to popular music is the same thing that other one-of-a-kind singer/ songwriters, like Hank Williams, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello do--only being a woman makes that achievement all the more remarkable.

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From the June 21-27, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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