A Conversation With Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams is the beloved revolutionary sweetheart of the alt-country rodeo. All of us literate, rock-crit boys daydream about her the same way we used to daydream about Liz Phair. We know about her father’s literary standing and her mother’s madness, about her dead boyfriends and her Southern pedigree. We know about her open-armed embrace of all the humid, folkloric strangeness the region holds: the sweaty danger of juke joints, the satanic deals at the crossroads, the Pentecostal hellfire and brimstone and the taking up of serpents. We know about her deep-blue melancholia, the crying jags that go on for days and the tears that literally blur the lyrics she inks in her notebook into Rorschach haiku. And we love her for all this. We love the way her voice sounds like she’s been up all night doing God knows what, the way it tremulously hugs the vowels in the names of those Southern towns that roll off her tongue: Jackson, Greenville, Lake Charles. We love her irrational perfectionism, how she recorded Car Wheels On A Gravel Road three separate times over six years until finally she made one of the most perfect albums released in the ‘90s. The downside of finally arriving at your masterpiece—and for Williams, it came at age 45, after four records spread over nearly 20 years—is where do you go next? It’s a riddle Williams has been trying to answer since the Grammy-winning Car Wheels came out in 1998. Everything after suffers the indignity of comparison, and it seems somehow unfair to say that 2001’s Essence and the new A World Without Tears (Lost Highway) are merely sublime.

MAGNET didn’t have the balls to say this to her face, but we did talk about Gram Parsons, Paul Westerberg, Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams, hip hop, Nashville and Christian conservatism.

You’ve moved from Nashville to L.A. How come?
I like it out here a lot better. There’s a really great music scene going on out here right now, very similar to what was going on in the ‘80s when I was living here then. They are calling it “stone country” and “canyon country,” hearkening back to the “outlaw country” days of Waylon Jennings. And there’s this whole Gram Parsons revival going on.

You recorded A World Without Tears in L.A.?
Yeah, we did it out here in this old 1920s mansion that’s located in Silverlake on top of a hill. We set up in the ballroom, everyone in one room.

It took six years to finish Car Wheels, but you’ve been pumping them out every two years since. What’s changed?
I think maybe I’m just getting used to making records, because I really hadn’t had that much experience with it. But it’s always hard for me. Steve Earle said to me when we were making Car Wheels, “Lu, it’s just a record.” I love that quote because he’s right: It’s just a record. I used to want to be able to walk away and feel good about every little thing on there, but I’ve since come to accept that that’s just not possible.

“Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings” reminds me a lot of Big Star’s “You Can’t Have Me.” Was that intentional?
Actually, I was thinking about Paul Westerberg’s music when I wrote it. I got turned on to his solo stuff last year, and I was on this Paul Westerberg jag. I really love his stuff on 14 Songs.

“Atonement” is the most hard-edged thing I’ve heard you do.
That comes from living in Nashville for nine years and having Christian fundamentalism crammed down your throat.

And then “American Dream” has an almost hip-hop vibe to it. Do you listen to much rap?
I pay attention to everything, and I really like some of that stuff. But it also goes back to being a teenager and hearing Gil Scott-Heron doing “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The old Beat poets used to do these spoken-word records, and there was this great Timothy Leary spoken-word record. That kind of stuff has been going on for a long time, all the way back to the blues.

If you had to pick one album by another artist that you wish you had made, what would it be?
Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan, because it combined the folk and rock world with the literary world, and nobody had really done that before. It just opened up my world. From there, I got into the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and the Doors, and it just went on from there for me. After that, all I really did—and all I really wanted to do—was listen to music and play music.

How is that different from now?
[Laughs] That’s still all I’m interested in. I don’t really do too much else. It’s a good thing I am able to make a living at this, because I gave up everything for it. I’m not trained in anything. I can’t type. I would have to go back to school and get a degree or I would be waiting tables.

When you were making Essence, did you feel incredible pressure trying to follow up a record like Car Wheels, which critics were hailing as a masterpiece? After a while, does the acclaim become a kind of millstone?
Yes. Before that, people weren’t really paying attention and you could hide a little bit. It’s sort of a mixed blessing because you start feeling more self-conscious. I like to think I am continuing to grow and expand musically. I don’t like to compare records. When I made Essence, a lot of people compared it to Car Wheels, which is ridiculous. I was in different places in my life when I made those records.

Isn’t it natural for people to become obsessed with a particular record and want you to keep making it over and over again?

Do you still give all your lyrics to your father (poet Miller Williams) to proof before you make a record?
I’ve sort of had an apprenticeship with him over the years, sort of a built-in creative-writing course. Because in the poetry world, that’s part of the process: showing your work to someone else, someone more experienced than you. So I got used to that process, and it’s a shame that more songwriters can’t have a mentor like that.

How do you overcome feeling self-conscious about passing along a song like “Right In Time,” which has a lot of fairly explicit erotic imagery?
To my dad? Well, he’s a poet. We transcend that. When we’re talking about writing, we are two writers talking about writing—that’s the beautiful thing about that. And that’s the kind of writer he is, so I was exposed to that kind of writing at an early age: edgy, darker, Southern gothic [writers like] Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. He always encouraged creative freedom when I was growing up. When I gave my father the lyrics for the new record, he didn’t have any comments to make about them one way or the other. He said, “This is the closest (thing) to poetry you have ever done.” I said, “You don’t have any criticism?” He said, “No.” I said, “Does this mean I graduated?”

What’s your opinion about some of the newer country-identified artists like Wilco?
I haven’t followed their work all that much, to tell you the honest truth.

What about Ryan Adams?
He is a brilliant writer. He is an amazing artist.

Somebody told me that a lot of the songs on A World Without Tears were inspired by Ryan Adams. Is that accurate?
[Giggles nervously] I don’t know what they mean by “inspired by.”

Or about.
I don’t really like to get into that in an interview. Maybe if we were sitting somewhere in a bar drinking, then I would tell you.

Let’s go get a beer!

—Jonathan Valania