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I was recently backstage at Warped Tour, drinking a complimentary Miller High Life and waiting in line for a free hot dog, when the illogically successful bassist in front of me struck up a conversation about current summer concerts. Much effusive small talk ensued until he asked what I had coming up next, and I mentioned catching a Lucinda Williams show in the near future.
He -- nineteen years old, pierced, dyed and tattooed -- gasped. "I. Love. Lucinda. Williams," he said, haphazardly spilling his own complimentary Champagne of Beers down the front of his studded black-leather jacket. "I just found this live recording with her doing this version of 'Joy' that was twenty minutes long and freaking melting with all that snarling she gets into. She's just so hot. And her voice...urnghhh. If your eyes aren't rolling back in your head when she does 'The Way That You Move [Right In Time]' and she's going 'Ohhh, my baby,' there is so something wrong with you. Rrrnnngf!"
Youthful Mr. Post-Punk is not alone in his Williams Worship. Check out one of her shows and you're guaranteed to find a sold-out crowd composed of middle-aged Easy Listeners, burnt-out gray ponytailers, renegade alt-country rockers and, yes, those youthful post-punks. They'll all swarm together, smoking and shouting out their many song requests, and more often than not, she'll grant them. The critics will scribble furiously and continue hailing her as the female Bob Dylan. And Williams herself will merely arch her back, sway like a buff metronome and let the music do the talking, never saying much more than, "This is called 'Fruits of My Labor,'" "This is called 'Ocean of Love,'" or "This next song was influenced by the music of Paul Westerberg. He's a genius. It's called 'Real Life Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings.'"
She'll follow every number with a childlike "Thank you!" -- and it's evident that she really means it, every single time. "The thing I love about my audience is it still feels the same as when I was playing the Flushing coffee houses and there were five or six people there," Williams says. "The energy is just the same and it makes me feel confident."
All of this nationwide Lucinda Love, however, has been a long time coming. The Lake Charles, Louisiana, native frequently moved as a child, living throughout the South, in Mexico and even Chile while her literature professor/poet father accepted various teaching positions and passed on his love of Hank (no relation) Williams and the blues. She took up the guitar at age twelve and eventually began performing in New Orleans. Ever the vagabond, Williams witnessed the birth of Austin's music scene, spent time in Houston and laid down a few shallow roots in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville.
Her assured blend of folk, rock, country and blues was proclaimed unmarketable by the handful of indie and major labels she road-tested until delivering her eponymous 1988 album, a songwriting breakthrough that won a Grammy for Mary Chapin Carpenter's rendition of "Passionate Kisses." More unwilling to compromise than ever, Williams went through three record labels and four producers while recording 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road from scratch twice. The album was her first to go gold and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. By the time 2001's Essence and 2003's World Without Tears were released, her popularity had exploded, her name in itself was marketable, and the composite crowds were coming out of the proverbial woodwork to hang onto her every smoldering vibrato.
Williams turned 51 in January. Her songs have appeared in thirteen movies and been covered by the likes of Patty Loveless, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris and, quite recently, Willie Nelson. She even dueted with the Red-Headed Stranger on "Over Time." "That experience," she says with discernible awe, "was one of the highlights of my life."
Williams cancelled stops in St. Louis and four other cities this past March after the death of her mother, who graduated with a music degree from Louisiana State University and first introduced her daughter to folk influences such as Dylan and Joan Baez. But now Lucinda is back, having already hit the Newport Folk Festival (home of the Great Dylan Plug-In) on August 7, and she's making up all her dates, including a tentpole gig at Nashville's hallowed Ryman Auditorium.
Williams is back to stomping in the cracked boots, straining the black-leather ensembles and shaking the bleached hair beneath the battered cowboy hat as she grooves to "Righteously." Back to alternately slinging and murmuring her twanged poetics in what those scribbly critics are fond of referring to as a "smoky drawl."
And she's back to pausing mid-show so she can introduce everyone involved with the evening's production by their respective first names, including sound and lighting guys, tour and stage managers, security and merch heads. Some nights when there's time, she probably even makes it down to the ushers, concessionists, ticket-takers, bathroom attendants, venue architects and construction company hard-hat manufacturers. Not that she forgets her three-piece backing band in the process. They're named first and foremost, but really, they're perfectly capable of commanding attention on their own. Bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Jim Christie are back to laying down the dark grooves of "Pineola" while Doug Pettibone's lead guitar explodes with all the confusion and feelings of betrayal of "Those Three Days." When they all come together to churn out the building grind of "Essence" -- with Williams' album moanings multiplied to the nth degree in a live setting -- it's all those tiny, eye-rollback-controlling muscles can do to keep from straining themselves. Then once the gasps and applause finally die down and she coos, "There you have it, it's that rode-hard-and-put-away-wet voice," rrrnnngf, you're back to begging Jesus Above to please restore your sight. Because there's a "smoky drawl," and then there's a forest-fire flambé.
There's also been news passed and artwork flashed of a new album. Williams recorded three shows at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium in November 2003 for a double-disc, Live at Fillmore West, which was originally scheduled for release on September 14. Publicists say it has now been pushed back to October, though rumblings on the lucindawilliams.com message board say there's word that it's been shelved indefinitely. But don't believe the gossip just yet; when has Williams ever felt pressure to rush out an album she believes in (which is all of them)? After all, we're talking about the same woman who's previously taken six and eight years between efforts to get all of her songs absolutely perfect. If we know anything at all about Williams, it's that West will be well worth the wait.