Lucinda Williams has been bucking the system and doing things her way ever since the Louisiana native’s career began more than 20 years ago.After recording an album of folk, blues and country standards (1979), and a second album of originals for Folkways (1980), Williams went on a five-year-plus hiatus from the studio before recording her acclaimed, self-titled debut for Rough Trade Records in 1988. Williams’ eponymous gem is a brilliant folk-rock-country stew that made a huge impact on the music industry. Patty Loveless, Tom Petty and Mary Chapin Carpenter all recorded songs from Williams’ striking collection of emotionally charged, detailed originals. Carpenter’s rendition of “Passionate Kisses” earned Williams a songwriting Grammy and universal veneration from her peers in the industry.After abandoning an original mix of the album, the uncompromising Williams released a follow-up to her eponymous success in 1992, titled Sweet Old World. Darker and more rock-oriented than its predecessors, it further cemented Williams’ reputation as one of the most gifted songwriter’s alive. In 1998, cult heroine Williams finally experienced mainstream acceptance with Car Wheels On Gravel Road. The album received rave reviews in every major music publication from Rolling Stone Magazine to Entertainment Weekly. The album won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk album and was certified Gold for sales of more than 500,000.Fresh off the heels of her 1998 commercial breakthrough, Williams had every reason to return to the studio and recreate the same sound that propelled her to the spotlight. Of course, Williams – one of the most talented and ambitious songwriter’s alive – did nothing of the sort.
On her latest release, Essence, Williams eschews the straightforward roots-rock of Car Wheels in favor of slower, more atmospheric blues and country leanings. Gone are the Flannery O’Connor-styled narratives that populate her earlier work. There is not a word on the new collection that does not tell. On the title track, Williams moans “Baby, sweet baby, kiss me hard / Make me wonder who’s in charge,” and the listener knows exactly who’s in charge.
Essence is dark, brooding and sounds best after the sun has vanished from the sky. In a recent interview with VH1 Williams said, “I feel it’s really kind of a sit-down album, much in the same way I imagine Billie Holiday sitting down in the studio and singing.”
At 48, Williams appears to have truly found her voice. The words flow from her mouth as if she were next to you singing softly to herself.
In concert, Williams is known for her equally inspired performances. She bares her soul like few artists are capable of doing, successfully exploring the universal truths that drive and torture each one of us.
n Lucinda Williams will be performing Tuesday at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg at 8 p.m. For tickets/information call (727) 896-1244. n Wade Tatangelo is the Oracle Off Limits editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.