Preview: Lucinda Williams

I love watching country music videos when I’m hungover. Besides the really schlocky and profit-driven-patriotism that is a sad sub-genre of contemporary country, by and large country music videos are awesome: dynamic acting, melodramatic and rousing score, beautiful acoustic guitars, and really great storylines. Because with country, you really have to feel; whereas in indie rock you can sing about butterflies or old movies or your own fragmented urban existence, in country, you sing about life and death and love and heartbreak. By definition, country music is narrative music, and while at the beginning of country music videos that little text box tells you who the director is, at the end it tells you who the songwriter is. Because that’s really what it all comes back to in country music: the songwriter. And Lucinda Williams, first and foremost, is a fucking brilliant songwriter.

It’s appropriate then, that this is how Lucinda Williams first broke into the ranks of the country music elite. While doing some largely ignored early work in the late 70s (!) and early 80s, her first major full-length was a self-titled record put out by Rough Trade in 1988. [Buyer beware: This album, and even the reissue, are out of print and hard to come by. Expect to spend upwards of $30 for the 1998 reissue and $250 for the Rough Trade pressing. However, the public library has a copy of the reissue.] This album featured the heartbreaking ballad “Passionate Kisses,” which would be recorded by Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1992 and earn Williams her first of three Grammys (this one for Best Songwriter). “Changed the Locks” is also on this album, a song that is amazing not only for the directness of its lyrics (“You can’t come inside my house / and you can’t lie down on my couch”) but also because the song really has no chorus or bridge. It’s a series of verses that simply build on each other, culminating with the outrageous desire, self-delusion, and sadness of any good breakup: “I changed the name of this town.” The song would later be covered by Tom Petty, and then in 1995 Emmylou Harris would cover “Sweet Old World.”

Between major artists covering her songs and the kind of promise suggested by her earlier work as both a singer and a songwriter, anticipation was feverish for 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. At least, that’s what I’ve read; in 1998 I had never even heard of Lucinda Williams. I was in high school and listening religiously to the triple-A format WYEP in Pittsburgh, where disc jockeys had it on heavy rotation and listeners were still asking for more. Like many, Car Wheels was my introduction to Williams, and after digging through the back catalogue and listening to the three albums since, I’m still as smitten as I was back then. Car Wheels is just that kind of record, where all of a sudden you need to hear everything this person has ever recorded. Put simply, it’s a country-rock masterpiece. And for all of its popularity and shine (the album went gold and won a Grammy), it still captures the raw honesty, sexuality, and passion suggested by her self-titled record some 10 years earlier.

Since then, Williams, a notoriously slow worker, has put out three albums, the best of which is the immediate follow-up, 2001’s Essence. Still, Williams’s powers of observation, of tapping into the kind of heartbreak and longing that underlies so much of the best country and rock music, hasn’t diminished, even if the immediacy of some of her music has. I can’t imagine Williams not going down without a fight, and I certainly won’t proclaim here, with her still alive and well, that Car Wheels is her career pinnacle.

So there’s the span of her 3-decade career, the way her music was perfect for my late high school/early college mixtapes (one girlfriend told me she cried listening to a Lucinda Williams song I put on a tape for her), and the fact that she is just plain badass in about as many ways as you can name. That alone will make me sell back some promos and pony up for that hefty, hefty ticket. My guess is that Lucinda, at 55, has a decade or two more of good songs left in her, and perhaps we’ll hear some of those, along with the classics, tomorrow night.

Lucinda Williams plays the Englert Theatre on June 29th at 8pm. Tickets are $39.

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Download: Lucinda Williams - Changed the Locks

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Download: Lucinda Williams - Essence

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