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Lost highways
Lucinda Williams and Whiskeytown


It’s less than a week before the release of Lucinda Williams’s sixth album — her first for the new Nashville-based Mercury imprint Lost Highway — and the 48-year-old Louisiana-born singer/songwriter is still feeling a little anxious. Not that there’s anything unusual about that: even artists who pour just a tiny bit of their heart and soul, not to mention a decent chunk of (usually) someone else’s change, into 40 or so minutes of music regularly worry about how fans and critics will react. And listening to any one of the three albums that preceded Essence — 1988’s defining Lucinda Williams (originally released by Rough Trade before being reissued 10 years later by Koch), 1992’s Sweet Old World (Chameleon/Elektra), and 1998’s Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) — tells you she’s not prone to putting just a little of herself into anything. But Williams isn’t just feeling anxious about Essence — she’s talking candidly about it over the phone from a hotel in Virginia on the third stop of a tour that will bring her to the FleetBoston Pavilion this Sunday.

“I’m my own worst critic,” she admits. “So when I wrote the new songs, I questioned them myself, partly because I wrote them fairly quickly, which is a different thing for me. And I was afraid that I didn’t have enough narrative songs, because that’s what I’m mostly known for. But I started playing the songs for people and getting good responses. It was liberating at a certain point because I just let go of worrying about everything having to be that long, literary, narrative style.”

Take the first gig she played after she recorded the CD. “It was in Fort Worth, and I was making the set list out and debating about whether we should play ‘Are You Down?’ The guys in the band wanted to do it. But I wasn’t sure because it was a sit-down kind of listening audience, and I didn’t think it was going to go over very well.”

As it turned out, this atmospheric blues rumination on falling out of love brought the sitting crowd to its feet, in spite of its having a skeletal two chords and one verse and a lack of narrative and relying more on the soulful tone and texture of her voice than the force of her words and, in short, being the antithesis of the country-seasoned Southern storytelling that brought Williams a measure of success in ’98. “Are You Down?” has been in the set ever since. But even that hasn’t entirely set her mind at ease.

“The guy who just reviewed my record for Rolling Stone obviously didn’t get it,” she points out. “I read that review and I thought, ‘Here we go . . . ’ I mean, I knew people were going to compare it to Car Wheels. But that’s like apples and oranges — it’s like comparing [Dylan’s] Time Out of Mind with Blonde on Blonde.”

The Dylan parallel is apposite, since it was his way with words, the long vivid narratives that characterized his Blonde on Blonde era, that Williams used as a model. “That’s all the stuff that I listened to and I aspired to. That’s how I wanted to write, and for years I was trying to write like that.” So when Dylan embraced a sparer, more impressionistic æsthetic on 1997’s Time Out of Mind (Columbia), it made a deep impression on her. And when some critics panned that album (which nonetheless went on to win a Grammy), she took that to heart as well. “When Time Out of Mind came out, the Tennessean just trashed it. I saved the review because it made such a big impact on me: I thought, ‘Here’s this beautiful album that he’s done and he’s gotten a bad review, so if this is happening to him, then it could happen to me.’ ”

The bulk of Essence is indeed a departure for Williams, who began her recording career with a pair of blues albums — 1979’s Rambling on My Mind and 1980’s Happy Woman Blues — before developing a style she could call her own a full eight years later on an album that would eventually (in 1994) earn her a songwriting Grammy for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of “Passionate Kisses.” For starters, it’s the first collection of her songs that isn’t dense with references to the Louisiana towns she grew up around — Algiers and Opelousas on Car Wheels’ “Concrete and Barbed Wire”; “Pineola” on Sweet Old World; Mandeville on Lucinda Williams’s “Crescent City.” It’s also the first album she’s made in more than a decade that doesn’t feature the core band (guitarist Gurf Morlix, bassist John Ciabotti, and drummer Donald Lindley) from that trio of releases. Instead, she demo’d all of Essence’s tracks with guitarist Bo Ramsey and relied as much on the music to convey emotion as she did on the sparer lyrics. Then she recruited a studio band from among the core group of pro players who have been putting in time of late with Dylan and Neil Young, including Austin-bred guitarist and Dylan sideman Charlie Sexton, who ended up co-producing Essence with her.

“I think it’s just a natural progression,” she comments. “I mean, I like to think I’m always trying different things out, and I’m not always going to do the same thing all the time. I’m at that point in my career now where nobody at the label told me anything about anything. I just got the songs together and we went in and made a record. It’s just a real easygoing kind of thing. I had all the songs together, the label was together — I mean, there was a real security factor there and a lot of support. We just used the demo as a reference point when we were tracking all the songs, because we got the essence, if you will, in the demo we did. That word just keeps coming up.”

There are a couple of places on Essence where the Lucinda of Car Wheels surfaces — in the uncomfortable encounters with a friend from the past that frame “Out of Touch,” and in the evocative details of her grandmother’s house that color “Bus to Baton Rouge.” Both songs predate the burst of creativity that supplied the rest of the material for Essence. “Believe it or not, ‘Out of Touch’ was originally written in 1981. It almost ended up on the Car Wheels record as a slower ballad. And ‘Bus to Baton Rouge’ is probably more familiar in terms of having that narrative kind of thing.”

Fans of Car Wheels may have wanted to hear Williams rock a bit harder. At the same time, it’s great to hear her exploiting the sensual, earthy qualities of her voice to convey yearning and desire in the subtler, more economical cuts that give Essence its character — “I Envy the Wind,” “Broken Butterflies,” and “Are You Down?” And on the title track, she brings it all together in one of the more powerful distillations of pure wanting this side of pure soul music: the sinewy blues guitar; the languid, breathy vocals with a touch of sweet Southern twang; the rich, rootsy sense of melody; the poet’s eye for devastating detail (“Kiss me hard/Make me wonder who’s in charge”).

None of which is going to make it any easier for tastemakers to find a format for Williams. “I hate the whole alternative-country thing. The problem is that because Lost Highway is based in Nashville, people assume it’s country. When people ask me what kind of music I play, I say ‘roots-based music.’ Then I end up saying, you know, ‘folk, rock, blues, a little country thrown in.’ But if I say the word ‘country’ or the word ‘folk,’ it gets confusing, because they mean different things to different people. It’s roots-based or Americana, I guess. I don’t like that, either, but I feel more comfortable with it.”

IF THE FOLKS AT LOST HIGHWAY are as interested in shaking the “alternative country” label as Williams is, the label’s first release, Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia, isn’t going to be much help. Recorded three years ago in an abandoned Woodstock church by the now defunct Ryan Adams–led North Carolina band, the disc got shelved in the wake of the Universal/PolyGram merger. Adams has already moved on to a solo career — he released Heartbreaker last year on Bloodshot and is working on a new one for Lost Highway — but that didn’t keep him from feeding a growing buzz about Pneumonia’s being the great lost Whiskeytown album.

Recorded by a core trio of Adams, fiddler Caitlin Cary, and guitarist Mike Daly, with Ethan Johns (the son of legendary producer Glyn Johns) producing and playing drums, the 14-track disc is as representative an introduction to “alternative country” as you’ll find. And it reflects both the best and the worst tendencies of the genre. The music does have that loose, rough-around-the-edges, down-home feel that’s missing from the “non-alternative” country Nashville feeds the mainstream. And Adams does deliver a pair of his better songs — the playful “Don’t Wanna Know Why” and the more reflective “Don’t Be Sad.” But like many “alternative country” artists, he tends to use country clichés as a crutch, relying on tears-in-my-beer self-pity and mistaking reverent formalism for genuine inspiration. The plaintive reminiscences of scraped knees, neon signs, and a 50-cent picture frame bought at a five-and-dime in “Jacksonville Skyline,” for example, are just a wee bit precious. It’s the kind of pat poetics you never seem to find on a Lucinda Williams album. And it explains a lot about why she’s not into being labeled “alternative country.”

Lucinda Williams headlines the FleetBoston Pavilion this Sunday, June 10, with opener Kasey Chambers. Call (617) 931-2000.

Issue Date: June 7 - 14, 2001

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