A direction home

I’m going back to the Crescent City
Where everything’s still the same
This town has said what it has to say
Now I’m after that back highway
And the longest bridge I’ve ever crossed over Pontchartrain.

— “Crescent City,” Lucinda Williams, 1988


Lucinda Williams seems to have spent her entire musical career either running away from or, maybe more importantly, toward some place that resonates in her head and heart. For a city to be mentioned in a Lucinda Williams song is to have arrived as a place of meaning. These songs of the South become a musical AAA road map of emotional checkpoints; if a place has left its imprint on Williams, the native of Lake Charles, La., will be damn sure to return the favor.

Nowhere does Williams’ landscape of love and loss resonate more than in Louisiana, which has become her state of mind, body and soul. You can hear it in everything from her yearning for “Lafayette,” her idealization of the “Louisiana Man,” or her reminiscence of a departed lost love who claimed to be from “Lake Charles.”

Few female artists can sound equally wistful and brazenly sensual as the 52-year-old Williams.

Her career has taken Williams and her rough-hewn voice just about everywhere, including critical acclaim that saw three Grammy Awards and a belated hit album with 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (which features “Lake Charles”). But now, with the devastation wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Williams’ thoughts once again have brought her home. She’d hoped to take her current tour, in support of her two-disc live set, Live @ The Fillmore (Lost Highway), over to Lafayette for a benefit concert Sept. 26, but Rita wiped out that idea. So she’s left to wonder how her friends and family are doing as she completes the tour, including a stop last Sunday at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

“I’ve still got a lot of people I haven’t heard from,” she says by phone from Dallas, just days before the planned Lafayette benefit. “Most of my relatives are in Baton Rouge and Sulphur, so, of course, I was thinking of them.”

She has rearranged her set list to include many of her Louisiana-based tunes, and immediately became a lightning rod for those searching for connective tissue with their lost home.

“The first show we did in Las Vegas [on Sept. 8], I walked out onstage and planned to do some Louisiana songs,” she says. “I didn’t want to jump right in, but work up to it. And there was this guy in the audience, who probably had a little too much to drink, and he shouted, ‘Lucinda, talk to us. Sing a song about Louisiana.’ I felt like a spokesperson, almost. I like to think I’m helping people deal with it in some way possible.

“I never thought about how many songs I had written that had to do with Louisiana. I think a lot of people were reaching out to me because of all the songs I’d written and I’m from there.”

These songs have allowed Williams to reminisce about an itinerant youth spent following her father, poet and college professor Miller Williams, to towns and universities throughout the South — including a pit stop in New Orleans in the mid-1960s, where Lucinda attended high school. Sort of.

“I got kicked out of schools a couple times,” she says, including once for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. After getting caught up in a civil-rights protest at her school, Williams says she never went back. Her dad home-schooled her and got her into some classes at Loyola University, where he taught. After following him to his next stop — the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville — Williams returned to visit her mother back in New Orleans, and stayed there for a couple of years. It was in New Orleans where she became inspired by the era’s rising folk stars.

She says 1972 “was the year I discovered Joni Mitchell, the year I discovered Jackson Browne.” At the time, she shared an $85-a-month apartment with a friend and scored a regular happy-hour gig at a coffeehouse named Andy’s — surrounded by the strip joints that lined Bourbon Street in the French Quarter.

“I always looked at that as one of the turning points in my life,” Williams says. “I was supposed to go back in the fall, but when I told my dad I got offered a job there, he said, ‘Go ahead, you can always finish school later.’ So I stayed and did this gig. I had some wild experiences during that time.” When pressed for specifics, the songwriter demurs: “Well, everything. Psychedelic experiences. That was pretty pivotal.”

Williams’ career since those coffeehouse days has been well-documented; years spent toiling away in obscurity in Austin, Texas, and later Los Angeles, where she developed a huge critical following that rarely led to album sales as rock stations found her too country and country stations found her too steeped in rock ’n’ roll. It’s no small coincidence that her eponymous 1988 release was on the punk-friendly Rough Trade Records. The album will go down in history for producing hits for other artists: Mary Chapin Carpenter would later score with “Passionate Kisses” — giving Williams her first Grammy, for Song of the Year — and Patty Loveless with “The Night’s Too Long,” while Tom Petty covered “Changed the Locks” on his music score for the 1996 film, She’s the One. The album also includes “Crescent City,” with its longing for streetcars, dive bars and blues music in the face of the war cry, Laissez les bons temps rouler! (“Let the good times roll”).

“That was written after I left New Orleans and the first year I moved to Los Angeles,” Williams says. “It’s all about looking back and remembering. I was feeling homesick.”

Over the years, she gained a reputation for long gaps between albums and for being a perfectionist in the studio, a label cemented with the 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album despite being her least folky work. She followed with 2001’s Essence, whose single “Get Right With God” earned a Grammy for Best Contemporary Rock Vocal, and 2003’s World Without Tears. Both albums have their moments, but neither delivers the promise of Car Wheels. Williams is completely comfortable with that perception.

“I went through this self-realization period and kind of a pivotal turning point where I said, ‘I don’t have to write another Car Wheels. They can be simple songs. To hell with it.’ I looked at Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind as inspiration. He kind of got away from works like Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, and he got criticized for that. Give the guy a break; he’s already painted his masterpiece.

“I was going through that in my own little world. Why don’t I give myself a break here?”

Over the past two years, Williams has had to deal with her mother’s death and a soured relationship. And yet, the woman has never felt more prolific; she has 24 songs ready for a new album, many of which are getting a great response on her tour.

“I’m really excited about the new material,” she says, “because it spans the gamut of what I’m all about.”

David Lee Simmons is the hurricane-displaced A&E editor of the Gambit Weekly. Send comments to [email protected]
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