She's got a way with words

Music

September 29, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It would seem difficult to do with so much going on: the rehearsals, the shows, the crowds. But while she's on the road, Lucinda Williams, one of the most critically lauded songwriters around, tries to carve out time to write.

"Being on the road - it's exhausting," says the bluesy country-folk artist, who's calling from a tour stop in New Mexico. "It can be very rewarding. I have my days off. I live on my bus, my home on wheels. I got it fixed up pretty nice."

On her luxury bus, the Louisiana-born artist, 52, finds the quiet time to concentrate on lyrics. "When the mood strikes me, I have my guitar," she says, her Southern drawl as thick as Alaga syrup, "Just the other day, I was writing a new song. Within the last year, I've written 24 songs."

Appearing at Rams Head Live on Wednesday night, Williams isn't sure whether she'll perform any of the new numbers. But she plans to enter the studio in April to flesh them out. The performer says that in the past few years she has felt more comfortable and experimental musically. This new artistic comfort and adventurousness are reflected on her most recent releases: the rocking, groove-oriented World Without Tears and the sprawling double-disc set Live @ the Fillmore.

Williams says, "All my new stuff - some hardcore country stuff, some gospelly blues things, some edgier rock stuff - all my new songs are very eclectic. I'm always gonna do that. As a songwriter, I can take different music and put it behind the lyrics. I've created my own style. That's what I've always wanted to do."

Inspired by her musical heroes Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Williams has taken a multidimensional and uncompromising approach since the beginning of her 25-year recording career. Over the years, her rugged style has folded in elements of rockabilly, Southern blues and folk as her lyrics brilliantly distilled life's more aching, vulnerable moments. Her songs often flow like poetic short stories. Williams can't help but write with literary flair. Her father, the respected poet and University of Arkansas professor Miller Williams, was an early influence. Growing up, the family frequently moved as her pops took teaching posts at colleges in Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Mexico City and Santiago, Chile.

"It was like having a built-in creative writing course in the house," Williams says of her father. "It was great. I'm still learning and growing as a writer because I grew up around poets. They never stop writing."

Although Williams has been a critics' darling since the start of her career, and although major artists such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris and Tom Petty have recorded her songs, it wasn't until the release of 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road that the public really started paying attention. Because of Williams' almost legendary perfectionism, the album took five years and three sets of producers to finish. But Car Wheels eventually rolled on to gold sales and, despite being her least folkish set, won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album. With the critical and commercial success, Williams started to feel uneasy about her approach.

She says, "I went through that awkward period of feeling self-conscious about writing, like I got to live up to some kind of standard. It got even more challenging. I felt like I had to keep writing the same song - that heavy, metaphorical song, like `Drunken Angel,' which took me years to write."

Her next album, 2001's Essence, showcased simpler songs with starker arrangements. On the ambitious World Without Tears, which became her highest-charting effort when in debuted in the Top 20 two years ago, Williams broadened her musical scope with more rock-oriented arrangements. Live @ the Fillmore, released this year, centers mostly on music from her past two albums.

"People were saying for a long time that I should do a live record," Williams says. "We were getting so much positive feedback for the shows. ... But I wish I could have recorded more songs. You have to work with what you got with a live record. I tried to make it sound good."

On stage these days, Williams doesn't obsess over every element of her sound. She says she's trusting her instincts more.

"It's that purity I want," the artist says. "First and foremost, I'm a writer. I'm always gonna be observing and writing and pushing myself in that, you know? That's never gonna change."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Lucinda Williams at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, Wednesday at 8. Tickets are $25 in advance and $28 at the door. For more information, call 410-244-1131 or visit ramsheadlive.com.

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