After years of artistic triumphs and creative strife, can Lucinda Williams finally leap beyond the "critic's favorite" label to become a popular success?

by Michael McCall

Lucinda Williams—one of the headliners at Smoky Mountain Jam '98—can trace her behind-the-scenes struggles in the music business back to the early '80s, shortly after she moved from Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles. She'd been gigging around L.A. for a brief time, when she gained the attention of Peter Philbin, a top A&R executive with a major label. "He listened to my songs and said not enough of my songs had bridges," she recalls. "He told me I needed to go back to the drawing board, that I wasn't ready."

At the time, Williams recalls, she was crushed. "I'd never really been exposed to the music industry before that," she says. When she tells the story today, however, her eyes sparkle mischievously. Two of the songs Philbin picked out as incomplete are now two of the singer's most admired compositions. "He told me `Pineola' needed a bridge and a chorus," she smiles. Today, she often opens her shows with the taut, blues-inflected rock song, which is about the suicide of a family friend.

"And he told me that 'Change the Locks' didn't have a bridge, and it needed one," she continues. Nowadays, she usually closes her shows with that song, another brutally terse, crunching guitar rocker about a woman who alters everything about her world so that she can put an ex-lover out of her mind. Tom Petty recorded and released the song two years ago, and it became one of his biggest radio hits of the '90s.

In the years since, Lucinda Williams has remained true to her instincts, even when her stubborn integrity has been seen as neurosis. Rather than changing to suit the industry, she has let the industry come around to embrace her. And so it has. After more than a decade marked by artistic triumphs and creative strife, Lucinda Williams has finally started attracting the attention her one-of-a-kind songs have long deserved. With the mid-June release of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her first album to enjoy the promotional muscle of a major label, Williams has abruptly become one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of the '90s.

The singer's ascension has been anything but simple. Every article and review alludes to the six years that have passed between her previous album, 1992's Sweet Old World, and Car Wheels, as well as to the difficulties she has had with producers and record companies along the way. Her triumph, the articles often say, has not come without torment. The die seems to have been cast: She's another of America's troubled geniuses.

Williams sees it differently. A Nashville resident since 1993, the Louisiana-born, Arkansas-raised singer will admit she's something of a perfectionist. But she also believes many of the media portrayals have been too quick to settle for a superficial telling of her story.

"You can't really praise somebody's work and then criticize the process," says the 45-year-old Williams, relaxing in the Nashville home she shares with her boyfriend, bassist Richard Price. "That's what's so ironic about all the criticism and comments I get about how I make records. I mean, who cares what happens in the middle? I think the music proves I make the right decisions."

That sense of herself—her dogged devotion to perfectionism—is never more explicit than when Williams is onstage. At her most recent Nashville performance on July 19, she started into the introductory chords of "Lake Charles," one of many standout songs from Car Wheels . But she stopped before reaching the first words. She cracked a joke about the heat, smiled as the crowd laughed, then counted off the tempo and started the song again.

For Williams, stopping in mid-performance has become something of a concert trademark. She has done it so often, she says, that fans have started expressing disappointment if she makes it through a show without cutting off a song in frustration. Like Pete Townshend smashing his guitar or Jerry Lee Lewis using the heel of his boot to bash out an emphatic piano chord, Williams' unwillingness to plow through a mistake encapsulates her musical personality in one simple move. It signifies how, for Williams, her artistry is inseparable from her anxiety and her drive for perfection.

"I don't like it if something doesn't feel right," she says of live performance. "If something is a little off, or it's not working for me, I'll say so. That used to be embarrassing, but now I make it work for me. I used to get flustered when it happened, but now I make a joke and say something like, 'Well, I guess the ice is broken now.' I'm not afraid to show I'm human."

That sense of humanity, and frailty, has helped to make Car Wheels a critical cause celebre. Rolling Stone magazine heralded the record's release with a rare four-and-a-half-star review. The magazine followed that two weeks later with an in-depth story. Spin magazine also put her name on its cover, pointing inside to a lengthy article that crowned Car Wheels "the year's best album." Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Details, Interview, No Depression—indeed, nearly every important pop-culture arbiter in America—have lavished praise on the singer in the last two months.

But Williams has always been a critic's favorite. What's different about Car Wheels is that it's actually selling. Until now, the singer has never had an album break the top 200 of the Billboard pop charts. Car Wheels entered the charts at No. 65 after first-week sales of more than 21,000. Two months after its release, it has become Williams' first album to sell in the six-figure range. With positive reviews pouring in for her new tour, and with pockets of radio support in various urban markets, those sales are expected to keep climbing.

Should her songs receive the radio exposure they deserve, the rest of the country will learn what the critics already know: Williams tells penetrating musical stories in a peculiarly personal way that manages to be heartbreaking and honest, yet full of grace, hopefulness, and, most of all, deep humanity.

But the singer's current success is in direct proportion to the heat she took last year in the nation's music press, where she was frequently portrayed as an indecisive prima donna. In gossip columns from Austin to Los Angeles to New York, and in various Internet chat rooms, stories circulated about Williams' supposed inability to finish work on Car Wheels. The stories arose in part from Williams' openness with journalists; while touring, she'd freely and willingly discuss the problems she was having with producers and with her label at the time, American Recordings. But as the album's scheduled release kept getting pushed back further and further, her frankness became a liability.

"What bothered me most about it was that there was no music for people to hear, so they couldn't hear the results of what I was struggling so hard for," she says. "The truth is, I'm not the only person responsible for why it took so long, a lot of it had to do with record-company politics, but no one ever talks about that. It's all been laid on me. But that's OK now, because the album is out, and it's good, and people are getting to hear it. And that is all that really matters."

Work on Car Wheels originally began in January 1995, in Austin, with Williams' longtime guitarist and coproducer Gurf Morlix. When Williams and American Recordings chief Rick Rubin were unhappy with the initial results, the work from the Austin sessions was scrapped. "A lot of the time was spent waiting on getting feedback from Rick Rubin," Williams says. "Even though Rick was executive producer, he was never in the studio with us. That created a lot of time problems. We'd record stuff, send it to him, and wait for him to have time to listen to it. That was a big hassle."

Tension also arose between Rubin and Morlix, she says. "Gurf would be happy with something, but Rick wouldn't be happy with it," Williams recalls. "Rick fought with me on some stuff too... But most of the tension was between Gurf and Rick."

When the Austin sessions were done, Williams and Rubin eventually decided to shelve the recordings. After recording a duet with Steve Earle for his I Feel Alright album, Williams decided to record the same songs in Nashville with Earle and his Twang Trust production team partner, Ray Kennedy.

For the first two weeks in the Nashville studio, Williams says, the recording team clicked. "We really cranked them out," she says. "We were really on a roll." Then, as she started fine-tuning the songs, she butted heads with Earle. That extended the recording schedule, and time problems arose. Earle had a tour booked and had to leave. Kennedy had other projects scheduled for his and Earle's studio, Room & Board.

"We literally ran out of time," she says. "Obviously, I wanted to get the record done—it had already been a long time by this point. So I decided to book another studio. We ended up going out to L.A. The reason we hired Roy Bittan [a former member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band] is that he was familiar with the studio. The meat and potatoes of the record was done in Nashville with Steve and Ray. All we did in L.A. was put the icing on the cake."

She admits her decision created "a little bit of a problem between me and Steve. He was frustrated, and I was frustrated. He had some ideas he didn't have time to try. But now everything is cool."

Internal problems at American Recordings forced further lags. As the label began to disintegrate, Mercury Records stepped in and bought the rights to the record. "That was a good thing for the album, too, so I'm glad it didn't come out earlier," Williams says. "That's part of why I don't understand all the criticism. I couldn't be happier with the end results of all this."

Her newfound self-confidence shows too. For the interview, Williams appeared relaxed, friendly, and unusually open about discussing herself and her work. Even her home reflects her current serenity: A spacious, sunlit, two-story house on a tony block off Hillsboro Road, it's a more casual and more homey place than one might expect. Like Williams herself, the interior has a lean, desert-baked feel, and it's stylish in a way that mixes urban hipness and down-home casualness.

Despite feeling that she's been unfairly treated by the media, Williams is an unguarded interview. In person, she is genial and down-to-earth, far from the terse, hard-living, brokenhearted, restless rambler that many stories suggest.

She acknowledges her reputation is somewhat different. But that's mostly because her previous songs were written in the past, not in the present. "Someone asked me recently why I was attracted to abusive men," she says. "But that's not me now. I'm not like that anymore. I'm settled and happy. Sure, I've gone through a lot of bad relationships. But so has nearly everyone I know. A lot of people put themselves in those situations, especially women. I don't think I'm that different from anybody else."

These days, Williams seems to have conquered many of her career obstacles as well. She's more comfortable onstage, she accepts the fact that part of her makeup involves taking time to get something right, and she's more than willing to embrace the acceptance she's finally achieving. Most important, though, she doesn't worry as much about what people think.

"I feel a lot more comfortable being me these days," she says. "I mean, I'm constantly told that my work is good. A lot of fans and a lot of other artists say my songs and albums mean a lot to them. Isn't that what's important?"

This story originally appeared in the Nashville Scene.