Ever since I saw Lucinda Williams open up for Bonnie Raitt in Philadelphia last June, I’ve been wanting to take a deeper dive into her music. This post is a first attempt to further explore the singer-songwriter who has been active since 1978. Over a 45-year-and-counting career, Williams has released 14 studio albums with no. 15, Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart, scheduled to drop June 30. I recently featured the excellent lead single New York Comeback in a Best of What’s New installment.
Before getting to some music, I’d like to provide some background. From Williams’ website: Lucinda Williams’ music has gotten her through her darkest days. It’s been that way since growing up amid family chaos in the Deep South, as she recounts in her candid new memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I told You [Crown, April 25, 2023 – CMM].
Over the past two years, it’s been the force driving her recovery from a debilitating stroke she suffered on November 17, 2020, at age 67. Her masterful, multi-Grammy-winning songwriting has never deserted her. To wit, her stunning, sixteenth studio album, Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart, brims over with some of the best work of her career. And though Williams can no longer play her beloved guitar – a constant companion since age 12 – her distinctive vocals sound better than ever.
“I’m singing my ass off,” she told Vanity Fair in February, following her first European tour since 2019. The love emanating from audiences and her musical family onstage and in the studio exemplify the healing power of music, says Williams. In 2020, she spent a week in intensive care, followed by a month in rehab before returning home. The blood clot on the right side of her brain impaired the left side of her body’s motor skills, forcing her to relearn some of the most basic of activities, like walking.
In July 2021, she played her first gig, opening for Jason Isbell at Red Rocks. She began seated in a wheelchair, but soon she was upright. “Just the energy of the audiences being so welcoming and warm and the band playing so great and being so supportive gave me so much strength,” Williams relates. “I figured, ‘Hell, all I have to do is stand up there and sing. How hard can that be?”
Williams got into songwriting and music at an early age. She started writing as a six-year-old and was playing guitar by the time she was 12. Five years later, she found herself on stage in Mexico City for her first live performance, together with her friend and banjo player Clark Jones. This was followed by gigs in Austin and Houston, Texas in her early 20s. In 1978, a then-25-year-old Williams move to Jackson, Miss. and recorded her debut album Ramblin’ on My Mind, which appeared the following year.
Williams first gained critical acclaim with her third, eponymous studio album from 1988, which was voted the 16th best album of the year in The Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll. Lucinda Williams has since been viewed as a leading work in the development of the Americana movement. In 1998, Williams broke through into the mainstream with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Her fifth album topped the aforementioned Pazz & Jop poll and won the 1999 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. It also became her first album to chart on the Billboard 200, climbing to no. 68.
Time for some music! I’m going to highlight six tunes, followed by a Spotify playlist featuring these and additional songs from all of her albums. Kicking it off is a great rendition of Robert Johnson’s Ramblin’ on My Mind, the title track of Williams’ above-mentioned 1979 debut album, which she recorded together with guitarist John Grimaudo.
After two blues, country and folk-oriented albums, Lucinda Williams started to embrace a more Americana and roots rock-oriented sound on her third, eponymous album. Here’s Changed the Locks, which also became the album’s first single. Like all except one tune, it was penned by Williams. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers covered this song on their 1996 soundtrack album She’s the One.
This brings me to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Williams’ acclaimed fifth album. It featured guest appearances by Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle who in addition to Williams served as one of the producers, along with Ray Kennedy who was working with Earle at the time, as well as Roy Bittan, best-known as longtime keyboarder of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. While the recording process was drawn out, in part due to some tensions between Earle and Williams who ended up bringing in Bittan to finish the album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road overall became her most successful album to date. Here’s the great opener Right in Time – love the guitar sound on that cut!
Next, let’s jump to October 2008 and Little Honey, Williams’ ninth studio album. It featured guest appearances by Elvis Costello, Susanna Hoffs, Matthew Sweet and Charlie Louvin. Little Honey earned a nomination for the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Americana Album, the category’s inaugural year, which was won by Levon Helm for Electric Dirt. Here’s the excellent opener Real Love, which also appeared separately as a single. Penned by Williams, with backing vocals by Hoffs and Sweet, the roots rocker was also featured in the 2007 American comedy-drama The Lucky Ones.
In September 2014, Williams released her 11th studio record Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, the first on her own label Highway 20 Records. The double album debuted at no. 13 on the Billboard 200, becoming one of Williams’ highest-charting on the U.S. mainstream chart. It also won the 2015 Americana Music Award for Album of the Year. Once again, there were various guests, including Jakob Dylan, Tony Joe White, Ian McLagan and Elvis Costello, among others. Here’s the great Burning Bridges, penned by Williams.
Fast forward to April 2020 and Good Souls Better Angels, Williams’ 14th and most recently released studio album. Another widely acclaimed album, it earned Williams yet another Grammy nomination, for Best Americana Album. Here’s When the Way Gets Dark. Like all except one other track on the album, it was co-written by Williams and Tom Overby who also served as producer, along with Williams and Ray Kennedy.
Last but not least, here’s the aforementioned Spotify playlist featuring the above and some other Lucinda Williams tunes. This artist is a true treasure! Hope you have as much fun listening to her music as I had putting together this post. I’m really looking forward to her new album, which based on the lead single sounds very promising.
Sources: Wikipedia; Lucinda Williams website; YouTube; Spotify