Lucinda Williams is a multiple Grammy award-winning songwriter and performer whose blues, southern rock, Cajun, and folk-influenced sound has achieved commercial success while staying true to her stripped-down, roots music aesthetic.
Lucinda Williams is a multiple Grammy award-winning songwriter and performer whose blues, southern rock, Cajun, and folk-influenced sound has achieved commercial success while staying true to her stripped-down, roots music aesthetic. Born in Lake Charles on January 26, 1953, to poet and professor Miller Williams and his first wife, pianist Lucille Day, Lucinda Williams’s childhood was steeped in travel, poetry, and music, as her father relocated the family to university cities across the American South, as well as Mexico City and Santiago, Chile, before settling into a permanent teaching position at the University of Arkansas. After picking up the guitar at age twelve, Williams absorbed the work of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and other musicians whose sound combined poetry and literature with traditional American music.
In the early 1970s, Williams performed at bars and coffeehouses from New Orleans to New York City and places in between such as Austin, Texas, where she lived for a time and immersed herself in the developing roots music scene. In 1979, a demo tape earned her the chance to record for Smithsonian Folkways, but the results, including “Ramblin’ (On My Mind)” and “Happy Woman Blues,” received little fanfare. She moved to Los Angeles and, after an unsuccessful deal with CBS Records, garnered unlikely attention from the British indie punk label Rough Trade. The label released her self-titled Lucinda Williams in 1988 to glowing critical reviews, though radio programmers struggled to find a comfortable genre for Williams’s earthy sound. Despite a lack of airplay, the album’s 17 original compositions provided the first widespread recognition of Williams’s songwriting voice, populated by, as one biographer described it, “assertive female characters, who seemed to answer only to their own passions.” “Crescent City” became a favorite among her Louisiana fan base with its smattering of French lyrics and wistful references to New Orleans, Mandeville, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, and zydeco music. “The Night’s Too Long” was covered by Patty Loveless and became a Top 20 hit on the country charts.
Williams’s next album, Sweet Old World, was released in 1992 to more critical success. She toured Australia that year with country stars Mary Chapin Carpenter and Roseanne Cash, and Carpenter decided to record “Passionate Kisses,” the most powerful song from the Lucinda Williams playlist. Released in January 1993, Carpenter’s rendition became a huge crossover hit on the country and adult contemporary charts and earned Grammy awards for both Williams and Carpenter in 1994. That success cemented Williams’s songwriting status, and other artists began to mine her catalogue as well. Emmylou Harris covered “Sweet Old World” on her landmark 1995 album Wrecking Ball. The next year, rocker Tom Petty released a version of her hard-hitting breakup song “Changed the Locks.”
Her biggest success, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, took the notoriously perfectionist artist years to finish and featured many producers (including Steve Earle and Rick Rubin), several back-up bands, and countless re-recordings. With this album, Williams finally found widespread acclaim, culminating in a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1999. The song “Still I Long for Your Kiss” from the album was featured in the Robert Redford movie The Horse Whisperer.
Since Car Wheels, Williams has released a string of successful and well-received records and toured with legendary artists such as her idol Bob Dylan and Neil Young. She has recorded highly regarded duets with Elvis Costello and David Crosby. The single “Get Right with God,” from her 2001 album, Essence, brought Williams her third Grammy in 2002 for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, and she has earned 12 other Grammy nominations over the years. Named “America’s Best Songwriter” by TIME magazine in 2002 and awarded the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, Williams has rightly claimed her place as one of America’s premier talents.