Lucinda Williams Looks Back at Her Breakthrough

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Lucinda Williams’ self-titled 1988 album — her third, but essentially a debut — is a roots-rock landmark, ground zero for today’s burgeoning Americana movement. It introduced Williams as a master of lyrical economy, a singer with an inimitable voice and an artist with a keen understanding of country, folk and rock.

It’s surprising, then, that she had such a hard time getting anyone interested in it. She spent the ‘80s gigging around L.A. and sending demos to labels major and minor. Everyone passed on signing Williams, who was deemed too country for rock radio and too rock for country radio. It took the UK indie label Rough Trade, known at the time for punk and postpunk artists like the Buzzcocks and the Smiths, to hear the potential.

The result was a lively album that didn’t simply fall between the cracks of country and rock. It fell between the cracks of every genre, which made it sound both familiar and brand new as she volleyed between the torrid harmonica rock of “Changed the Locks,” the spry country pop of “Passionate Kisses,” the crisply ruminative folk of “Side of the Road” and the acoustic blues of “I Asked for Water (He Gave Me Gasoline).” What tied everything together is Williams’ voice, whose unusual texture suggested years of heartache and hard living.

To celebrate its silver anniversary, Williams is reissuing the album with a sharp remaster and a bonus disc of live tracks recorded at a show in the Netherlands. She spoke to CMT Edge during a break from the studio where she was recording for an upcoming album.

CMT Edge: It took you nearly a decade to make this record. Can you tell me about the years leading up to the Rough Trade album?

Williams: I was trapped between country and rock. During that era, between the end of the ‘70s and into the late ‘80s, they didn’t have Americana or alternative rock or alternative country or whatever. I wasn’t a folksy singer-songwriter. I just didn’t fit in anywhere.

I’m a rocker really. I’ve got that attitude. It confused everybody because I was a singer-songwriter out of necessity. But I really wanted to have a band and rock more. It was really luck that Rough Trade came along when they did because they weren’t hung up on the American music world.

What did you think when Rough Trade contacted you?

I wasn’t familiar with them, but then I realized they’re basically an English punk rock label. The information I was given at the time was that they were trying to branch out a little bit beyond the other stuff they had been doing, and they were looking for different kinds of artists. They had just set up an office in San Francisco.

I had done this demo tape with some really great musicians on it — the keyboard player from NRBQ, Garth Hudson from the Band. I had a development deal with Sony Records to write and demo some songs, but they passed on me. Sony Nashville said it was too rock for country. Sony L.A. said it was too country for rock. Every single label passed on it — not just major labels but all the little labels, too, like Rounder and Sugar Hill. By the time Rough Trade came around, I was pretty frustrated. I didn’t have any options, so I said sure. It sounds like a fairy tale, but that’s really how it went.

What do you remember about those sessions?

There was a small budget — $15,000 or something. We couldn’t afford a producer. We wanted to have Pete Anderson do it, but we couldn’t afford him. So just by default or fate or whatever, Gurf [Morlix] said we should just do it ourselves with Dusty Wakeman.

The thing is, we’d been playing around L.A. in different clubs and bars, so we knew the songs. There was very little preproduction, if any. We didn’t have to figure out arrangements or anything like that. We just had the songs down. It took about 10 days or so, with recording and mixing and everything. It was really a labor of love for everybody. Because we didn’t have a big budget but everybody wanted to see this record happen, several people took really low pay or refused to get paid.

How did the album’s release change things for you?

Rough Trade was an indie label, but they did a really good job of boosting things for me. They sent me to Europe, Australia, New Zealand and worked things as best they could. When the record came out and I started touring, the press started coming in, and nobody expected it. It was a whirlwind of sudden interest from people who had just heard the record and were wondering, “Where has she been all this time?”

I found myself doing interviews in the daytime and then having to sing at night, and it was a constant flurry of requests and interviews, which I wasn’t prepared for at all. Nobody expected it. So it was really the Rough Trade album that broke me. Car Wheels took me to another level, but that was when everybody discovered me.

What are you working on now that this reissue is out?

We’ve done a few things that have come up here and there. I just did a session for that band Alt-J. That was fairly challenging because they’re an English band and it has that English folk sound. It reminds me of Sandy Denny or Bert Jansch. I had to match their phrasing, which is challenging, but it’s a really cool song. And we actually have enough stuff for two separate albums, but I think we’re going to release them independently of each other.

This new reissue, especially with the live disc and remastering, almost sounds like a victory lap now that Lucinda Williams has earned a reputation as a foundational album in the Americana movement.

The album had been reissued 15 or so years ago on Koch Records, but they didn’t find the original analogs. They just made a copy from a copy. That’s why this new version is such a big deal. We hunted down the original analog tapes, which were in storage at Mad Dog Studios in Venice, Calif. … We took them over to Gavin Lurssen, who is particularly good at taking old reel-to-reel Dolby tapes from another era and bringing them into the light. We didn’t want it to sound slick or anything like that. Sometimes you get these remasterings and everybody says, “I like the original better.” So that was our main concern. But it sounds like you want it to sound — like the original, but better.

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