The new book Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives comprises a collection of personal essays organized and edited by songwriter and longtime Paste contributor Holly Gleason, featuring 27 women writing about the range of female musicians who inspired them the most. Some of the contributions are truly stunning: Roseanne Cash on her mother, June Carter Cash; Taylor Swift on Brenda Lee; Grace Potter on Linda Ronstadt. Lady Goodman’s chapter, entitled “Lucinda Williams: Flesh & Ghosts, Dreams + Marrow,” offers a look back at the author’s own move to Los Angeles and finds parallels with a young Lucinda Williams.
“It matters less when, where, why, or how it happened,” Gleason writes in the book. “The point is that every last one of the women celebrated in these essays stirred the writers, in
many ways changing their lives forever.” Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives was published this week by the University of Texas Press. Below, read this exclusive excerpt of Goodman’s reflections on Williams.
She was the girl at the bar. Lanky, blond, big eyes that drank everything up, there was a will to know and understand all the things that went on around her. Always a little sad underneath the kindness, always asking how you are and really meaning it, she had a voice that sounded a bit like a crow gargling kerosene in a raw wind—and somehow it soothed rather than set you on edge.
Back then the Palomino Club in North Hollywood was mostly forgotten—sodden carpet and a nicked, burned and tattooed-by-patrons counter that ran longer than the line any of us could’ve walked. There was an old school cigarette machine in the back, and yellowing black and white pictures of Emmylou in a rhinestone’d cowgirl outfit, Jerry Lee post-prime but raising Hell, Linda Ronstadt in tube socks, Charlie Rich and Merle Haggard and John Conley behind plexiglass to remind us of its glory days long gone.
Forgotten was too kind a word for it. Bikers had their corners, punks commandeered a couple nights a week. Faded once-weres with nothing else to remind them of back when they mattered would check in occasionally to feel as if there was still sparkle. In the low light, it was hard to tell. And Ronnie Mack had his Barn Dance, a weekly come as you are country-leaning variety show a la the once upon a time Louisiana Hayride. Largely populated by eager writers and guitar players looking to make their mark on country post-Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam, the creative foment was good fun and better music.
Tom Petty eventually cut “Changed the Locks.” Emmylou Harris recorded
We didn’t think it was much of nothing. Screaming Siren rockabilly filly Rosie Flores in her bobbed hair and fringe kicking it up with the house band; uber-producer Pete Anderson, the Detroit blues guitar-slinger who’d helmed The Town South of Bakersfield compilation and Yoakam’s breakout Guitars, Cadillacs, Hillbilly Music, would be draped over that cigarette machine in the back. Straight up country singer Jann Browne, whose few perfect singles almost made it, would bring her classic if radio friendly music wearing turquoise boots and white bolero jacket. Sometime low rent skin mag pin-up with a heart of gold blues cum Wurlitzer country queen Candye Kane would show up, blow up and play the piano with her 44H assets.
Lucinda Williams suddenly wasn’t just the girl at the bar, she was a voice that mattered. Poetry of real life dripped from her lips and fingers, plain language and melodies stained with the blues, with folk, with the lights spilling out of the cracks in beer joint walls.
It was Fellini in rhinestones, thick smoke and a bodyguard named Tiny, who was the largest human being I’d ever seen. The cast of characters, the buzzing neon, the naugahyde barstool seats, pealing from sweat, humidity and nervous fingernails driving into them.
Normal was Jim Lauderdale, scooped up in the backdraft of Dwight Yoakam by Epic Nashville for an album never released; he, the too nice guy with the Manuel suit. Lauderdale had a guitar player who was even lovelier than he was. Buddy Miller, in his bolo tie and Western cut blazer, had more tone than any guitar player I’d ever heard; he used his heart through his fingers instead of a whammy bar or a lot of digital gymnastics to make his point. Both Buddy and Jim were friends with the girl at the bar, with the sad in her voice, the bangs that fell across her forehead like a sigh and the broke-in leather jacket.
Nobody really talked about Lucinda’s music, though someone whispered that she’d made a couple albums for Folkways a long time ago. They also didn’t talk about, but they whispered about her divorce from one of the Long Ryders, famously Sid Griffin’s band; latter day progenitors of cowpunk, Griffin was an authority on cosmic country icon Gram Parsons. The divorce seemed to be the tinge that permeated without drowning Williams’ demeanor.
I was fresh from washing out of Florida, trying to figure out what happens next. The Palomino Club was legendary. I was drawn there by reputation, and the notion it was a bellwether for what was left of a cow punk movement that had spawned Lone Justice, the Blasters, the Knitters, Los Lobos and the more punk than cow icons X.
Shabby and rundown, it felt like I did. Not much past 20, a little disheartened by how unfair life can be and trying to keep the bubbling joy I felt life deserved alive. Fired by the daily paper where I’d been their over-producing rock critic, a favorite of Neil Young amongst many; set-up by a guy who needed my job, I was devastated. All I had was a boyfriend who insisted I move to L.A.—and there I was in a big city that seemed to overwhelm me at every turn.
The Barn Dance felt like Friends, or Cheers, or any hometown spot where everybody knows for your name. You’d walk in the door to smiles, “hell, yeahs” and back-clapping hugs.
For a lost girl, it felt like a haven. And Lu felt like the kind of girl you’d want to be friends with. Totally in sync, miserable and commiserating, understanding of how cruel fate was, she was the kind of girlfriend who’d listen and lift you up, and never make you feel like you were being whiny.
I’d run into her at Millie’s, the dive diner in Silver Lake where the murky people showed up as morning turned to day. Silver Lake wasn’t hip then. I don’t think punk god and X founder John Doe had even moved there yet; the neighborhood still so sketchy my car was broken into three times in four days. She and I were both so broke, we’d split an order of toast and drink our tea. Those mornings, which should’ve felt like shame on a plate with a blue border circling the edge, thrilled me—because this was L.A., and she was a poet, and we were living it!
And unlike so many hopefuls, she didn’t push her music or her dream on you. Didn’t make you run for the self-promotion the desperate often clung to, wield like a club trying to convince themselves as much as the listener. There was talk about sides cut for CBS Records, sides deemed “too country for rock, too rock for country.” Talk, too, about all the labels sniffing post-Lone Justice for some kind of Emmylou elixir, but never a deal coming to the table.
But there she was at the Pal, cheering on Jim Lauderdale. Laughing about something or nothing with Buddy Miller. Holding her own on a bar stool, side of her head against her open palm, watching whomever was onstage. Sometimes, sitting in with a band that included the upright bass player Dr. John Ciambotti, who was a chiropractor by day after his days chasing music in Clover faded, and Donald Lindley, with the cockeyed fedora and almost soldier boy stick work on the drums.
Then came what was politely known as “the Rough Trade album,” but released as Lucinda Williams. A punk label best known for the Smiths didn’t just show interest, but straight out offered her a deal. Someone named Robin Hurley; was it a man or a woman? Because how could a man understand songs so blatantly female, no matter the toughness.
Make no mistake, these songs were tough—even as they threw themselves down the stairs of desire, loss, rejection and joy. We knew Lucinda’s dad was a teacher, but not the poet Miller Williams. She came by lines like “Is the night too black, is the wind too rough / Is it at your back, have you had enough?” and “She saved her tips and overtime, and bought an old rusty car / She sold most everything she had to make a brand new start…” honest.
Honest and real. It felt good when you put the record on, heard a life you were living given simple eloquence. Realized your mundane was poetry, and someone you knew was great, just because they were. And just because you knew them, because your lives were mundane, that didn’t mean there wasn’t magic there.
Lucinda Williams was a revelation, there in that airless apartment overlooking the reservoir—not even a natural body of water—that gave Silver Lake its name. Draped on a mauve coach, listening to Skip Edwards’ farfisa organ whirling out of the speakers, the rush of anticipation of “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” hitting your veins like a drug.
It moved into the deep yearn tempered with hope that was Sylvia the Waitress’ escape from Beaumont “The Night’s Too Long,” followed by the barbed wire ballad “Abandoned,” clearly bulls-eyed at the Long Ryder who rode away, leaving her sunshine through moonshine ache attenuated on the long vowels like a clothesline overburdened. Gurf Morlix twisted guitar took that pain beyond words, wringing out her intentions like an old washrag in dirty water.
The brightness returned—even through the prism of that same damned divorce—in “Big Red Sun Blues,” as well as the zydeco retreat to home in Louisiana that was “Crescent City.” There was lumbering blues that ground down in the lurching “Changed the Locks,” and a hushed tentative ballad that suggested a return to vulnerability and love with the coo’ed and whispered “Like A Rose.”
For a trainwreck girl trying to figure out what happens next, suddenly I didn’t feel so isolated in failure, urgent in needing to have the answers. And listening to “Passionate Kisses,” which would go on to win Lu a Grammy for Country Song of the Year by virtue of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “hit,” I had the most empowering feminist anthem ever.
Suddenly, asking for what I want wasn’t pushy. As Williams sang about wanting a bed that didn’t hurt her back, having enough to eat, warm clothes, a rock and roll band, time to actually think and the realization of her desire, it didn’t seem like too much. But as the final chorus swelled up, with the ‘60s style “whoa-oh-oa”s, she shook off any notion that good girls are happy with what they’re given.
“Do I want too much
Am I going overboard
To want that touch
I’ll shout it out to the night
Give me what I deserve
‘Cause it’s my right.”
Heck, yeah! If Lucinda can sing it, I can live it.
Knowing people in Nashville, I started making calls, started pushing. Highway 101’s manager heard what I heard in “The Night’s Too Long.” Pressing the A&R kingpin of the great ‘80s credibility scare Tony Brown to get serious about the song for Patty Loveless, who’d already cut Lone Justice’s “Don’t Toss Us Away.” Use it or lose it, I urged, “because this song is every woman listening to country radio—and Highway 101’ll kill it.”
Brown cowboy’ed up—and cut it on the Appalachian traditionalist with blood ties to Loretta Lynn. Loveless understood the pining to get out, to get to somewhere more electric, vital, possible. She wasn’t afraid of a line like “Now the music’s playin’ fast, and they just met / He presses up against her, and his shirt’s all soaked with sweat.”
Around Hollywood, where Williams played Rajis and the Palomino, word was also moving around. Lucinda Williams suddenly wasn’t just the girl at the bar, she was a voice that mattered. Poetry of real life dripped from her lips and fingers, plain language and melodies stained with the blues, with folk, with the lights spilling out of the cracks in beer joint walls.
Tom Petty eventually cut “Changed the Locks.” Emmylou Harris recorded “Crescent City.” Canadian country-progressives Prairie Oyster did “The Price You Pay.” Pretty much anyone who was anyone loved the record, jockeyed for stories of how they knew her—or where they saw her.
But back at the Palomino, she was still Lu. Still singing with Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller, still playing with her core band, still the girl who heard our stories and shared our lives. Yes, she was on every critics’ list that year, it seemed, from the Village Voice to Rolling Stone to Tower Pulse to The L.A. Times. However, she was still ours—and that’s what mattered most.
The music business being as much musical chairs as it is quality, she signed a deal with a major label, then lost her key executive to turnover. It would be four years before the equally enchanting Sweet Old World and another six until the watershed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road earned Lu her next Grammy.
But through it all—like all of us music business gypsies—she cobbled together a life, figured out how to make art on her terms, move to Austin, Nashville, elsewhere and kept going. She’d appear on compilation albums, play dates, break hearts, capture it all in songs.
When she wrote of coitus and self-pleasuring with the same frank, but exquisite rapture in “Right in Time,” the elation of orgasm is transferred to her listener, as is the stab to the gut of the kiss-off “Come On” to the guy who never quite completed the climax. Heated, bristling, awesome. Lucinda!
Lucinda, the star, mascara smeared, three hours late. Always so sweet, you couldn’t hate her. Always chasing a sound or a standard for her records she drove everyone mad, but the results were hard to quibble with.
The kind of woman who could write about a friend who died a slow suicide in “Drunken Angel,” lament her mother’s death in “Mama You Sweet” and somehow cover AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way to the Top” and make all of them sound of one cloth. Not rock, not pop, not punk, not country nor blues: American. Americana.
Before Americana was colonized, there was Lucinda. Recycling everything that happened, she was a teacher.
Excerpted from Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives edited by Holly Gleason, © 2017, published with permission from the University of Texas Press