Lucinda Williams Happy Woman Blues Smithsonian-Folkways

Catfish Reef: Happy Woman Blues

Way back in 1980, long before she was on all those magazine covers, long before the Grammys and all the other accolades and her status among the NPR set, the woman who would be the Queen of Americana made this gentle, rootsy and unassuming little album right here in Houston's Sugar Hill Studios. It would be her last for eight years.

In the late 1960s, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark had ignited a very strong local folk/country/blues singer-songwriters scene here, and by the late '70s, it was centered on Montrose and blazing its last vivid radiance. It was one of the most fertile scenes Houston has ever had, and it was organic — what separated the Houstonians from the rest of America's folk-rock pack was their attachments to regional music like the country-gone-city blues of Lightnin' Hopkins, the ancient pre-blues folk of Mance Lipscomb and Clifton Chenier's red hot zydeco. These artists weren't just trying to cash in by copying Crosby, Stills and Nash records off the radio — that type of mercenary, carpetbagging folk scene would come later.

While patriarchs like Clark and Van Zandt, along with their star pupils Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell, were gone to Nashville by the mid-'70s, many remained here who had yet to heed the siren calls of Music City and Austin. Anderson Fair and the Hard Thymes Soup Kitchen and a host of other venues were still the stomping grounds of such talents as Richard Dobson, Vince Bell, Gurf Morlix, John Vandiver, Don Sanders, Nanci Griffith, Eric Taylor and Lyle Lovett.

And, of course, Lucinda Williams, who not only performed at the city's folk clubs but also once opened for Ted Nugent at Liberty Hall. Happy Woman Blues was her second album and her first of original material, and it finds her backed on all tracks by her live band of the time -- the Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys. The HRMB then consisted of ace flatpicker Mickey White and bassist "Wrecks" Bell, the once-and-future Old Quarter proprietor and the only man to back both Lightnin' and Lucinda and serve as the subject of a Van Zandt song. That core band is supplemented by Sugar Hill house steel guitarist Mickey Moody and Malcolm Smith on fiddle and viola. Williams later recalled that she had recorded the songs without drums and that someone snuck in and dubbed them in later, but you don't really get the feeling that they are obtrusive. Except they seem so retroactively when they are absent, as on stunning album closer "Sharp Cutting Wings (Song to a Poet)."

The conventional wisdom about Happy Woman Blues is that it is overly derivative of the Delta blues her father raised her on. Talk about judging an album by its title....Only the slide guitar-driven title track could be described as heavily blues-derived. Meanwhile, there are three Cajun country-tinged tunes in the eminently hummable "I Lost It" (which was later reprised in slowed-down form on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), "Louisiana Man," and the waltz "Lafayette." There's also a post-Loretta Lynn honky-tonker ("One Night Stand"), and plenty of twangy, Gulf Coast country-rock ("Rolling Along," "Hard Road," "Maria") and the Van Zandt-like Texas folk rock of the album's best cut, "Howlin' at Midnight." In short, in its fusion and combination of styles, this is an Americana album from before the day Americana was invented.

Happy Woman Blues sounds not too far removed in spirit from Lucinda Williams and Sweet Old World, the albums that would make her name in the 1990s leading up to the all-sweeping triumph of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The languid, drawling voice is there (the vocals are occasionally too reverb-y), the poetic and geographical imagery and memorable melodies, the keen eye for telling details, the chronicles of the faulty attempts lovers make to meld minds as well as bodies.

While Williams is known to have become very particular in the studio, Happy Woman Blues was cut over the course of a few days, so this album is akin to peeking through the sketchbook of a young master. It's also a reminder of a time when Houston musicians crossed the tracks and reveled in their provincialism and in the process created something the whole world (eventually) took note of and loved. — John Nova Lomax

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