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!"

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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.  

After spending time at the start of her career looking for gigs in California and New York, she turned to living in and traveling in between the Houston-Austin axis, though finding more work here than in Austin. "Austin was into that whole 'cosmic cowboy' thing then, and they wanted bands, so Houston was a good place to find work. There seemed to be a lot of clubs with a [singer/songwriter format]," she says.

Her recording debut in 1979 was a collection of acoustic blues covers, Ramblin' On My Mind, followed the next year by her first original effort, Happy Woman Blues, both on the Folkways label. Both were well received by critics, but hardly representative of the music that was popular in the day. She moved to Los Angeles in 1984, still searching for the elusive career boost, and was married briefly to Greg Sowders, drummer for the Long Ryders.

But that break she was looking for finally came in 1988 with the release of Lucinda Williams, a sterling collection of songs on the mostly punk-rock Rough Trade label that had critics stumbling over their thesauruses for superlative adjectives. Recently rereleased by Koch International with six additional tracks culled from later EPs, it has also proved a treasure trove of songs which have been covered by other artists, including Tom Petty ("Changed the Locks"), Patty Loveless ("The Night's Too Long") and -- most famously -- Mary-Chapin Carpenter, whose smash hit version of "Passionate Kisses" not only garnered Williams a 1994 Grammy for songwriting, but has paid a lot of bills in the interim.

Similar critical reception followed the even-better Sweet Old World in 1992. Surfacing to the forefront on this disc was Williams's further hormone-racing meditations on pure love and hot lust, even managing to make grocery shopping and laundry sexy on one track. Lucinda Williams may not have been the girl you brought to the bar -- but she was the longneck-chugging woman in the tank top swaying by the jukebox whom you'd rather take home at the end of the night anyway.

However, the four-year wait for listeners set the stage for the larger problems and frustratingly long production time on the making of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. And though much of the press given to the record has concentrated perhaps too much on its path through several producers, record companies, recording studios and Williams's own brand of perfectionism (she recorded, then completely scratched the record at least once), she remains unapologetic about its lengthy gestation period.

"It was six years between records, but it really only took two years in the studio on and off," she explains patiently -- no doubt for the millionth time. "And I don't know why people can't understand that. If you talk to any number of people in this business, you get different stories about musicians being signed and dropped and [executives] leaving labels. And all that stuff happened to me." It also didn't help that during the time both Chameleon Records (who released Sweet Old World) and American (who was originally to release Car Wheels) went under. Mercury eventually picked up the completed disc, most of it already mixed by producer Rick Rubin of American.

She also often butted heads with her two subsequent co-producers, outlaw country rocker Steve Earle and later Roy Bittan (keyboardist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band). But she does not deny them due credit for the finished product."They absolutely made a big impact. And they both played on it. Steve also helped create a lot of cool grooves. And Roy also made a big difference for me," she says. And it's hard to argue with the results, from the slinky tempo of "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" and the wistfulness of "Greenville," to the groin-moving longing of the record's first single, "Right In Time," and the regret of "Drunken Angel." The last was written for Williams's friend and Texas songwriter Blaze Foley, who was shot to death in a barroom brawl.

Interestingly, diehard fans are already familiar with most of these tracks, either through live performances over the past years or via bootleg recordings of shows to tide them over until the official release. It's these same fans who've given Lucinda a larger-than-expected presence on the Internet via chat rooms, message boards and unofficial web sites. And though the subject of their musings doesn't even own a computer, she thinks the whole thing is, well, a hoot. "It's great, and I attribute the whole thing to the momentum from the downtime that I was in. People were talking and buzzing and asking all these questions. They really created the anticipation for this record. That's mainly due to the Internet," she says, although she adds that many fan-based rumors about the record -- and her life -- proved untrue. "There was all this talk about Steve Earle and me having an affair. My boyfriend [her bassist, Richard Price] thought that was funny, because he was there the whole time. And so was Steve's girlfriend."Lucinda Williams has not played Houston in several years, but a lot of her old haunts just wouldn't do for this tour. "The Mucky Duck was too small, and Rockefeller's has closed, so we're trying this new place," she says of the much larger Aerial Theatre, which she says will close off sections of the balcony to accommodate her expected audience level. But the building people might not want to pull out the tarps just yet -- with the combination of all her longtime fans, and the ones who have made her new record their first purchase, they might need those extra seats after all.  

Lucinda Williams performs on Monday, December 7, at the Aerial Theatre, 520 Texas Avenue at 8 p.m. Jim Lauderdale opens. All tickets are $20. Call 629-3700.

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