Perfect Ingredients

Lucinda Williams' songs of passion, poetry and emotion are guaranteed to reserve her a place in music history.

How do we love Lucinda Williams? Let us count the ways.

We adore Lucinda's early blues and folk-revival albums, such as Ramblin' On My Mind and Happy Woman Blues, which were recorded for Smithsonian/Folkways Records (a record label actually owned by the U.S. government) ever so long ago in the late 1970s.

We worship her middle-period classics Lucinda Williams in 1988 and Sweet Old World four years later. With their equal and unadulterated doses of rockin' and twangin', these records set the tone for what today gets called Americana or alt-country music.

Those discs infiltrated the collections of rock and alternative-rock fans hungry for authentic roots music they could call their own. During this period, Williams' tune "Passionate Kisses" became a hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter, exposing our heroine to mainstream country audiences as well.

We the people of the music-lovers' union especially love Lucinda's recent recordings, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998 and last year's Essence, both eloquent statements by a seasoned artist capable of evoking sadness, joy, fervor, desire, angst and faith--sometimes in the same song. Hell, even in the same verse.

And Lucinda Williams is returning to Tucson for a gig Friday night at the Rialto Theatre. Opening the show will be Australian folk-rock singer-songwriter Anne McCue, who saw the release of her debut album, Amazing Ordinary Things, in 2000.

You should be there, so people don't have to tell you: "Aw, you hadda be there." Count on this: in 50 years, music aficionados, historians and critics will look back on Williams' work with the fondness, awe and reverence we reserve for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell and Frank Sinatra. No, really.

The record-store employee who sold tickets to this reporter for the gig thought he was being ironic when he said, "Isn't she supposed to be the female Dylan?" Funny thing is, he was right.

Judging from past performances, though, Williams' latest gig here will most likely be memorable, very possibly legendary. She played the now-defunct Tucson Garden a decade ago (with a pick-up band of local players, no less) and blew away a criminally half-empty house that was waiting for a grunge-rock headliner now forgotten in the mists of mediocrity. Even with her notorious wandering eye, she was riveting.

We caught up with her in 1999, when she took the stage with a top-notch group of the best musicians in the industry, including longtime guitar slinger Gurf Morlix, at the House of Blues in Hollywood, hot on the heels of the release of the fabulous Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Industry bigwigs, fellow musicians and common fans alike were wowed by Williams' passion and the innate poetry of her songs. The performance was so good, it hurt to leave after it was over.

Although the 49-year-old Williams is hardly a regular Top 10 artist or a household name--at least in most households--she was last year named "America's best songwriter" by Time magazine. She recently took home her latest Grammy Award for the single "Get Right With God." Oh yeah, she also won a Grammy for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

That album also earned Williams a gold record (at least 500,000 units sold), which in days of yore was a big thing. Now it makes Williams a cult favorite, a musician's musician, a songwriter's songwriter. An angel--a drunken angel even, to quote the title of one her tunes--who wears a leather jacket, motorcycle boots, tatty jeans and a punky blond shag.

No matter, she gets respect from the people who count, the ears of the industry and the music fans who look beyond the next teen idol.

Born in Lake Charles, La., she's the daughter of a poet father and a pianist mother. A natural wanderer, Williams has lived in Arkansas, Chile, Mexico City, New York City, Nashville and Austin. She says she grew up on a steady diet of Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix.

But with her first album, Ramblin' on My Mind, Williams displayed her love of proto-blues by the likes of Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie, as well as the early country of Hank Williams (no relation) and A.P. Carter.

Known as a perfectionist with artistic integrity, sometimes to a fault, Williams is reported to have trashed a perfectly good version of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and re-recorded the whole darn thing when it didn't meet her standards. She later opted to surround herself with veteran players from the bands of Bob Dylan and Neil Young to record the gentler, more tender Essence with Charlie Sexton giving an able assist behind the mixing board.

Though she may have had a reputation for being difficult, Lucinda Williams is also known as a genteel sweetie with an easily broken heart, a lover of outsider art, faithful to friends and patient with fans, even those lubricated among us who corral her on an Austin, Texas, street near closing time during the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference.

Williams' contract rider, which we found on the web site "The Smoking Gun," is indicative of her graciousness. The backstage-supplies list demands not only health food, Diet Coke, soy milk, Evian and the usual six-packs of Tecate and Dos Equis, but states, "Any extra 'nice touches' will be greatly appreciated." Politeness rules!

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