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Lucinda Williams: Precious Things

Music Features Lucinda Williams
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Lucinda Williams: Precious Things

Lucinda Williams  clutched the receiver and hung on her father’s every word. Three years ago, the Grammy-winning, critically acclaimed songstress had dialed Miller Williams—her mentor, toughest critic and dad—for a bit of consolation after attending an old friend’s funeral. Miller’s words weren’t so much a comfort as an inspiration.

“He told me ‘a precious thing’s temporary nature just makes it more precious,’ and ‘the saddest joys are the richest ones,’” Lucinda recalls of the genius in her father’s offhand remarks. “It was so profound that I jotted it down and eventually wrote a song about it.”

That tune—aptly titled “Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)”—is featured on the second disc of Williams’ new double album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. Over the song’s pensive guitar and church choir organ, Lucinda sings that impromptu mantra from her father, holding a quavering high note as she comes to the word “precious”—evoking the trembling grip of anyone who struggles to let go.

In an email to Paste, the elder Williams was modest about his role in the song’s origin, writing, “I was sharing with her what we all eventually know, that the less time we can possess what we care for, the more we care for it.” But his daughter insists that the tune wouldn’t exist without his initial input, even though it was unintentional.

It’s not the first time that Miller has helped Lucinda with her lyrics. As a poet and literary professor—who has authored 25 books and was given the National Arts Award by President Bill Clinton in 1997—the elder Williams offered endless feedback on his daughter’s early tunes. But she says his contribution to “Temporary Nature” was especially meaningful.

“Over the past few years I’ve lost several friends to illnesses. And now my dad’s got Alzheimer’s,” Lucinda, who is 61 years old, says of Miller, aged 84, before elaborating on his affliction: “Just watching that horrible disease at work, seeing it take his mind and his creativity, it’s really tragic.”

He has stayed strong in the face of those symptoms—in an email exchange between father, daughter and this reporter, Miller offered insightful answers to several questions. But despite its early stages, Lucinda can still see the toll that the disease has taken on him, especially during a recent tour stop near his home in Arkansas.

“He wasn’t able to go to the concert, it was just too difficult for him to attend,” she says, adding, “So I did a little acoustic show at his house, and he invited some friends over. He really enjoyed that.”

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The songstress has given several parlor performances for Miller and his poet pals over the years. In fact, that’s how her career started. Throughout her childhood, the elder Williams often hosted after-parties for writing workshops, prompting Lucinda to entertain the guests.

“People say rock ‘n’ rollers are wild, but those poets could drink anyone under the table,” Lucinda says with a laugh. “Partway through most of those nights, Dad would say ‘Honey, why don’t you go get your guitar?’ I would start playing in the living room, and Dad’s friends would tell me I had soul and that I should hang in there. My writing wasn’t there, and my voice hadn’t developed yet. But I got encouragement from some pretty cool people.”

The members of that audience changed throughout Lucinda’s youth, as she and Miller moved throughout the Deep South and into Latin America for his stints at different universities. They spent most of 1963 in Santiago, Chile, where Miller befriended renowned local poets like Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra. Nicanor’s sister, Violeta, was an esteemed songstress whom Lucinda credits as a key influence, adding: “She was like the Joan Baez of Chile. We played her record all the time at home, and I even learned to sing one of her songs in Spanish.”

Miller went on to work at a university in Mexico City, before returning stateside. There he met and mentored up-and-coming wordsmiths like Frank Stanford. When the young Arkansas-based bard committed suicide in 1978, Lucinda (with whom Stanford had had a brief affair) accompanied her father to the funeral. The trip inspired one of her most revered songs, “Pineola,” from her 1992 album Sweet Old World.

“Most of those lyrics are factual,” Lucinda says of “Pineola,” adding that the song was named after the rustic village where Stanford was buried. One of the tune’s closing verses describes the family of the departed poet, in an image as tragic as his untimely death. “It was really surreal. My dad and all of his writer friends were in one group, and his [Stanford’s] mother and sister were off to themselves. They didn’t know anyone. In fact, none of his friends knew anything about his family. It was a very Southern Gothic kind of thing.”

As she scrawled lyrics about such incidents, Lucinda found herself fantasizing about having a career like Violeta Parra’s (along with that of Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan and other star songwriters of the ‘70s). So when Miller finally attained tenure at the University of Arkansas and started to settle down, Lucinda longed to carry on her nomadic lifestyle.

“Some people would tell me ‘Oh you had to move around when you were young, that’s so terrible.’ I didn’t see it that way,” she says of the childhood she spent traversing Chile, Mexico City and other locales with her father. Instead, it left her with a wanderlust that has yet to be satisfied. “It gave me a global sense of things at a young age. It got me interested in Latin American culture and folk art. Ever since then, if I’ve been in a place for quite a while, I get restless.”

Today, that disposition serves her well as one of alt-country’s top touring musicians. But one pivotal conversation might have kept her from venturing down that path.

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After high school, Lucinda Williams didn’t immediately strap on a guitar and step onstage. Instead, she enrolled at the University of Arkansas after passing an entrance exam, despite having dropped out of the 10th grade. Academia still left her unsatisfied, but at Miller’s behest, Lucinda endured and finished her freshman year.

“He wanted me to stay in college and get a degree, so that I’d have something to fall back on. And I tried,” she says, adding that effort became even tougher after she paid a visit to New Orleans that summer. She went to The Big Easy to see her mother, an amateur pianist who had lost custody of Lucinda and her siblings after divorcing Miller in the mid-’60s. During her stay, Lucinda was offered a regular gig at a dive called Andy’s in the French Quarter. She only played for tips, but the cost of living was so low, and the thrill of performing was so great, that a sophomore year at U of A seemed unthinkable. And yet she still considered it and consulted her father before deciding.

“I still look at that as the major turning point, because what if he’d said no? Then I’d have had to go back to school, because I looked up to him,” she says. “I didn’t want to disappoint my dad.”

Miller gave Lucinda his blessing at that key moment, but she shouldn’t have been surprised—he had been supportive, in one form or another, ever since she played for him and his fellow academics as a young girl. Of Lucinda’s earliest performances, Miller writes, “What was mostly noted, given that most of those present were either poets or teachers of literature, was those talents of hers which could have made her a poet.”

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The prospect of convincing her father may have seemed daunting at the time, but that was merely the first hurdle in Lucinda’s tumultuous career. The early years were especially rocky. She may have written would-be classics like “Pineola,” in the late ‘70s, but she didn’t record many of those tunes for another decade. Instead she began with Ramblin’ On My Mind, her 1979 debut LP that only consisted of blues covers. Lucinda followed that up a year later with Happy Woman Blues. Both releases flopped, but in that time she had moved from New Orleans to Austin, Texas; then Jackson, Mississippi; then eventually to Nashville, gigging all the while. When her third eponymous album was released in 1988, its lead single “Changed the Locks” gave Lucinda her first taste of chart success, especially when Tom Petty covered it shortly after. From there, she gained confidence, releasing a more melancholy follow-up called Sweet Old World in 1992, on which she finally included “Pineola” and other songs about suicide, grief and loss.

And while stars like Petty may have covered her songs, it was the reinterpretation of another tune from her self-titled album that truly helped Lucinda Williams break through. Beloved country diva Mary Chapin Carpenter recorded her own version of “Passionate Kisses,” a deep cut that netted both artists Grammy awards (Williams for best country song and Carpenter for best female country vocal performance). From there, Williams had the opportunity to collaborate with some of her heroes, like veteran songstress Emmylou Harris on her 1995 comeback disc Wrecking Ball. Harris returned the favor by lending her vocals to Lucinda’s next album, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Those sessions were fraught with tensions, as she butted heads with producer Gurf Morlix, before firing him and redoing the first round of near-finished recordings. Despite the turmoil, Car Wheels became Lucinda’s most successful album yet—her first to go gold, top several critics’ year-end lists and net her a Grammy for best contemporary folk album. Fans and reviewers praised her fusion of country, blues, folk and rock on the release.

But her genre-mixing wasn’t always considered a strength. In fact, much of Lucinda’s career before Car Wheels had been plagued by record execs who complained about trying categorize her eclectic sound. At the time, Emmylou Harris was quoted as saying: “Lucinda is an example of the best of what country at least says it is, but, for some reason, she’s completely out of the loop, and I feel strongly that that’s country music’s loss.” Harris has also gone on to describe Williams’ voice as abrasive enough to scrape “the chrome off a trailer hitch.” Casual country fans couldn’t see the cheeky compliment in that description, or the distinctive charm in Williams’ singing. But a niche audience was smitten with the hoarse vulnerability in Lucinda’s voice. Those fans didn’t consider her singing to be “sand-papery” (as some critics claimed). Instead, they felt a unique texture in Lucinda’s delivery, one that made the hurt in her lyrics palpable.

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Williams says she’s far from concerned about her lack of platinum albums and smash singles, adding “I still don’t get played on mainstream radio. But it has never surprised me or bothered me. I always knew I wasn’t mainstream and was never gonna be mainstream. I don’t like the Nashville country you hear on the radio. The goal, for me, was to play music for a living.”

Yet, Williams harbors no hatred for Nashville, unlike many of her alt-country contemporaries. In fact, she has befriended many of the infamous Music City’s most promising performers.

“I did a show with a girl there called Elizabeth Cook, and we really hit it off. She’s great,” Williams says, before citing another of her favorite Nashville acts, the Kenneth Brian Band. “They’ll tour with us in the fall, and my husband [record exec and music producer Tom Overby] is working with them a lot. Their stuff is a cross between Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Drive-By Truckers. It’s great Southern rock, real spirited stuff. So there are some great younger artists coming out of Nashville. You just don’t hear them on country radio.”

Those expecting a more cantankerous comment from one of country’s rawest fringe artists shouldn’t be surprised. That audience may have been drawn in by the audible ache of Williams’ early releases like Sweet Old World, or the resilient sneer she exuded on mid-career cuts like “Joy” (with its fierce refrain: “You took my joy, I want it back”). But true Lucinda Williams fans would have noted a tipping point in her later albums. Take Essence, her 2001 follow-up to Car Wheels. Rolling Stone praised its “willful intimacy,” and Entertainment Weekly called it “her folkiest, gentlest album” yet. Lucinda also won her third Grammy for the disc’s upbeat number “Get Right With God.”

What’s more, the album marked a new era with her father. In the past he would have plenty of corrections and feedback for her yet-to-be-sung lyrics. Sometimes his input seemed like mere fussiness, like his insistence that she change “a” to “the” so that a key line from the Car Wheels tune “Drunken Angel,” read “Blood spilled out from the hole in your heart.” But, upon consideration, Lucinda would always see how that meticulousness mattered. All that changed on Essence. As she puts it: “When I sent that album’s lyrics to him, he told me that he didn’t have any corrections to make. So I asked ‘Does that mean I graduated?’ And he laughed. That made me feel really good.”

That streak of optimism only grew—Lucinda went on to release Little Honey in 2008 and Blessed in 2011. Her output has also picked up. She finished four albums in the ‘00s, double the number of discs she released in the two preceding decades. Some music journalists attributed that newfound positivity to her marriage to Overby, her Grammy wins and her various collaborations with other lauded musicians. But that new direction hasn’t drawn universal acclaim. Pitchfork, for instance, only gave Blessed a mixed review and said it “has the feel of a transitional album—from lonely to married, from troubled to contented, from regretful to joyful.” A reviewer for Toronto’s NOW Magazine gave the album an equally lukewarm review, writing: “Williams is more observational than personal throughout Blessed, looking upon her downtrodden characters with sympathy and compassion.” The critic may have seen that point as a flaw, but the songstress insists it’s her greatest newfound strength.

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The opening track on Lucinda’s latest release is called “Compassion,” and the album’s title comes from one of that song’s lyrics: “Where the spirit meets the bone.” Those lines were initially penned by Lucinda’s father, and the tune marks the first time that she incorporated some of his verses into her lyrics. Every stanza resonates all the more because of the song’s sparse arrangement, featuring only an acoustic guitar and the imploring ache in Lucinda’s vocals as she sings Miller’s words:

Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it.
What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism
Is always a sign of things no ears have heard.

“That’s one of the things Dad taught me growing up. I love that idea, of trying to remember that you don’t know what a rude person has been through,” Lucinda says of the poem’s theme, before quoting Miller’s lines: “‘You do not know what wars are going on down where spirit meets the bone.’ We can’t see that part. It just describes the inner pain of people, the inner struggles.”

Her father was deeply touched to know that some of his oldest work could have so much impact on Lucinda’s new songs. He writes, “It was truly exciting when she told me by mail that she’d done this, as she asked for my approval. I’d never had one of my poems cross that bridge before!”

Lucinda’s updated “Compassion” isn’t a mere tribute to her father’s vintage poem. She also adds several lines of her own, turning it into a unique discourse of sorts. It’s the first time that she so heavily integrated her father’s work with her own.

And that’s far from the album’s sole milestone. Recording a double album is a feat in itself, especially for a woman who was once famed for her two-albums-per-decade average. Down Where the Spirit’s wider scope may be less focused than some of her previous works. But it also allows Lucinda more latitude for new ambitions. Its final track, for instance, is a near 10-minute rendition of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia,” which ends with a wailing guitar solo that surely would have made the late Tulsa Blues vet smile. Meanwhile, on the swampy midway track “West Memphis,” Lucinda sings in a nonchalant drawl about a surreal Southern Gothic murder, sounding like Annie Oakley on the set of True Detective. And the album’s catchiest track, “Stowaway In Your Heart,” conveys the deep gratitudes that are coupled with hard-earned love.

The disc’s guests include Jakob Dylan, members of Elvis Costello’s rhythm section and keyboardist Ian McLagan of Faces fame. “The songs I played on were recorded live in a great studio,” McLagan says. “And playing along to her live vocals is as good as it gets. It’s how I prefer to record, but you can only do that with a vocalist as impressive as Lucinda—it brings out the flavor.”

“She’s a poet,” he adds. “Words are no barrier to Lu.”

Miller Williams shares that sentiment. And despite the album’s all-star collaborators, Lucinda’s father truly is its key contributor. That’s because his lines in the original “Compassion” inspired so much more than one of her latest songs.

“It helped me with all of my writing,” Lucinda says of the poem’s empathetic theme. “It helped me write about other people, like my songs ‘Drunken Angel’ or ‘Lake Charles’ or ‘Pineola,’ which deal with people who did stupid things like kill themselves or drink themselves to death. You have to be compassionate when you sing about those characters. If you’re judgemental, it doesn’t turn out well in a song. I’d rather identify with other people’s feelings.”

Miller Williams certainly recognizes that aim in his daughter’s lyrics. In the joint email to Paste and Lucinda, he tells her, “What most deeply touches me in your songs is the fact that what they say is not really about you, but about the listener; this is what makes them so important to those who hear them.”

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