Breaking Through to the Mainstream

It's always a bittersweet day for music fans when their cult favorite finally breaks through to the mainstream. On one hand, there's happiness that the performer you may have championed to deaf ears for years is now garnering the attention you always knew they deserved -- the "See, I told you so!" factor. But then there's that loss, the winking nods and affirmative smiles of other diehards "in the know" at a small show dissipating as the shared secret now becomes the popular bandwagon, tainting some ethereal purity that may have existed only in your mind.

That's exactly how fans of Lucinda Williams must have felt this past summer with the release of the elusive singer/songwriter's first record in six years, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. There she was with hefty interviews and reviews in Rolling Stone (who gave it a rare four and a half stars, hailing it as a "country-soul masterpiece"), Spin (which called it the "album of the year") and, hell, even Newsweek, with a two-page spread. So you'd think the one person who'd be most surprised by the attention is the artist herself. But you'd be wrong.

"I was a bit surprised, but not a lot, because all of the [attention] really started ten years ago with the Rough Trade record ('88's Lucinda Williams). That surprised me a whole lot more, when I came out of virtual obscurity. This is more of a continuation," she says from her Nashville home during a break in packing for a promotional tour of England. "Some of the stories are a little bit bigger now, but the critics discovered me back then, and I became this darling of the press. So they were pretty much waiting for it."

Out of most mouths, this would sound boastful. But if anything, Williams is exceedingly down-to-earth about the newfound fame, which is richly earned after an anything-but-stable professional career that began almost 30 years ago and has taken her to enough places to boggle the mind of a travel agent. This includes about five years in Houston in the mid '70s, where she honed her utterly unique blend of blues, folk and country music, accumulating a cast of memorable characters in her highly personal lyrics wrapped in that unmistakable twang. "Houston had a really vital scene centered around just fine writing and acoustic music. You had people like Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Vince Bell and Eric Taylor playing all around. And it was a great breeding ground and an important time for me where my songwriting was nurtured and I really grew. I have great memories of that time and that area," she says. "Of course, then disco came along and killed the whole singer/songwriter thing. All the places in Montrose got turned into dance clubs. I even used to have a 'Disco Sucks' sticker on my car!"

It's not surprising that Williams would use her vehicle at the time to make her feelings known, as cars and traveling are constant themes in her songs. So is geography, and specific locales at that. On Car Wheels, she name-checks no fewer than 13 cities, three states and one body of water. Names like Macon, Baton Rouge, Lake Charles and Slidell roll along. Most of them either places she has lived in as an adult or while growing up as her father, poet Miller Williams (he read at Clinton's second inaugural), searched for teaching gigs with Lucinda and her younger brother and sister in tow after a divorce from their mother. And that's not even counting places in between like Mexico City and Santiago, Chile.

The bittersweet memories of constant uprooting take front place in the title track: ("Child in the backseat, about four or five years / Lookin' out the window / Little bit of dirt mixed with tears / Car wheels on a gravel road"). Williams claims she didn't really realize that she was the child in the song until her father heard it and jokingly implored, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

"You try and paint a picture of what you're talking about, and part of creating the story is to name the town it happened in. If you're talking about Beaumont, Texas or Iowa City, Iowa, it's going to create a different image in people's minds," she says. The restlessness and rootlessness is aptly reflected in her songs over her past three albums, in which an inordinate number of (usually male) friends, lovers and relatives always seem to be disappearing somewhere or abruptly leaving.

Born in 1953 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Williams has been playing music in front of audiences since the early '70s and was writing songs even before that. She was undoubtedly influenced not only by the literary (and musical) bent of her father, but by the guests he sometimes brought home of wildly disparate writing styles like Flannery O'Connor, Charles Bukowski and James Dickey. And in fact, she's about to take a stab at prose herself with a short story based on one of her songs for a compilation that country singer/writer Roseanne Cash is putting together.

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