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Rolling Thunder 

What happened to Lucinda Williams? When she first sat before a studio mike in the tiny Malaco studios in Jackson, Miss., she held her 12-string guitar and beat it with the pulse of the musicians who were there before her -- Denise LaSalle, King Floyd, Z.Z. Hill -- and sang with something close to their soul style. The songs she chose -- by Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson, the Rev. Guy Smith, Hank Williams, A.P. Carter -- she had learned from records. But the resulting album, Ramblin' on My Mind (Folkways, 1979), is only an approximation of various genres, only a gesture toward the blues. Between the seams of her rigid singing, the static and uninspired arrangements, you can hear her strain for emotions she imagines and desires but never finds. At the age of 25, Williams knew this wasn't yet the blues.

Williams had been singing since 1965, when at 12 years old she heard Highway 61 Revisited, and then, seeing through the rock & roll surrealism, she traced the music back through the blues revivalists to the Delta-blues mother lode, the musical expression of the land where she was born, the same poetic impulse, ultimately, of the writers she knew as a child: her father, Miller Williams; his friends Charles Bukowski, Flannery O'Connor and Tom T. Hall. Alone or with her family she traveled the South, all the way to Mexico and Chile, and finally, in 1974, began performing regularly in Houston with the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Nanci Griffith.

What happened to Lucinda Williams is just this: She found her voice. One thinks of Eudora Welty's description of artistic birth, of a bubble breaking in the throat and the voice always there finally emerging. But that discovery of voice is a mystery, impossible to quantify or describe. Robert Johnson, a competent juke-joint guitarist, disappeared one day and returned a genius. In isolation on some Far East islands, Pablo Neruda found himself writing a sequence of poems that changed modern literature. No one knows why.

Williams' second album, Happy Woman Blues (Folkways), was the first sign of her lyrical genius, an ambitious collection that, were it not for the hesitancy still in her phrasing and the blues-folk arrangements that never match her stories of lovers moving through Southern and interior landscapes, might have been a classic. She no longer performs "Lafayette," "King of Hearts" or "Sharp Cutting Wings" -- 10 years later she would reprise "I Lost It" -- but she has never escaped her themes.

Breakthrough. Lucinda Williams appeared on the tiny indie label Rough Trade in 1988, a UK joint of the punk persuasion (e.g., the Raincoats and the Slits) that would soon fold (the album had been long out of print; Koch reissued it this year). Few records from the '80s hit as hard and from so many directions. In fact, one needs to go back to Highway 61 Revisited to find an apt comparison. From the loose, sympathetic collaboration of Donald Lindley, John Ciambotti and, above all else, Gurf Morlix, Williams finds a sound inseparable from the fraying velvet fabric of her voice and the crystal precision of her words. The rock & roll is impetuous and joyful, by turns honky-tonk-hard and punk-fast. The ballads are limpid and fresh; they seem not to be communicated from out there but sung from within the listener himself or herself. The blues are not imitated; they arise naturally, a consequence of the emotion Williams finds in every line.

And then four more years of silence before Sweet Old World (Chameleon), a remarkably different record but another breakthrough for her songwriting. If the Rough Trade album had been a wail for independence, Sweet Old World was a keen of loss. "Pineola" tells the story of a dead neighbor "whose mother believed in the Pentecost" and grapples, as concisely as any Flannery O'Connor story, with mortality and faith. "Little Angel, Little Brother" evokes a young man's beauty, yet the tone is elegiac. The love songs meditate on the lines around a lover's eyes or on romance six blocks away.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was six years and nearly as many producers in coming. If Williams had needed six more, the results would be worth it. Like her self-titled album, Car Wheels is not a sum of parts -- of lyrics, melodies, voices and instruments -- but instead is played out as one rich, living sound, as though Williams, through the force of her personality, were playing every note, even every musician, like a single instrument. That the album went through so many contortions, so many overdubs and retakes, only makes its wholeness all the more stunning.

It's not enough to say that after a long apprenticeship to country and blues, Williams has begun exploring her own songwriting and her music has flowered. Listen to her take on Kate Wolf's "Here in California" (on Treasures Left Behind, a Wolf tribute album): Williams now knows her voice so well that she can forget everything she ever learned, and she now sings every song, no matter the author, as if she were writing each anew. A month ago at the Blue Note in Columbia, Mo., Williams stood with her six-piece band on the platform, her tense body rocking like a colt finding its footing for the first time. She has never been comfortable on stage, but she has never been anything less than honest. The concert was long, loose, dominated by material from Car Wheels, and featured no new songs, though she closed with blues tunes by Memphis Minnie and Howlin' Wolf. Spilling over the stage, her band conjured Dylan's amorphous and unpredictable Rolling Thunder Revue, brilliant castoffs thrown together with the purpose of making music in tune with one uncompromising artistic will. There's a bit of the show-off in guitarists John Jackson (recently of Dylan's "Never Ending Tour") and Kenny Vaughan, but it doesn't matter. Williams now has a band to capture the sounds -- the sexy blues, the spacious country, the dirty rock -- she has always heard inside.

Lucinda Williams performs at Mississippi Nights on Tuesday, Feb. 2.

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