On her latest disc, Lucinda Williams decided to branch out from the blend of country, folk and rock that since the 1980s has made her a cause celebre among critics and an object of adoration to fans.
However, since the February release of “West,” some critics, along with fans of the old Lucinda, have been sawing away unhappily at the limb Williams climbed out on.
At first, the reaction to “West” - an intense, deceptively low-key, sometimes harrowing examination of personal loss, emotional stagnation, bewildering betrayal and the challenge of carrying on - perplexed the 54-year-old performer, who broke through with her 1998 disc, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” In fact, Williams has discussed it at length in virtually every publication except Horse & Hound, the fictitious magazine Hugh Grant purported to work for in “Notting Hill.” Now, Williams thinks she may have arrived at an explanation.
“Almost all of the negative reviews were by men,” she observes via cell phone from her tour bus, which is headed toward Kansas City, Mo.
Williams then repeats what a (male) writer theorized could be behind those notices: “As an older, more mature woman, I’ve grown into another part of my life,” she says, “and a lot of the songs I’ve written are about me coming into this part of my life. My mother died, a tumultuous (romantic) relationship ended, and I met Tom (Overby, her fiance and manager).
“`West,’” she points out, “is a very life-affirming album. Since I wasn’t like the desperate young girl in the bar, since I wasn’t looking for Mr. Goodbar, maybe they couldn’t appreciate the image.”
When it is suggested that some men also like to see themselves as a hero rescuing damsels in distress, she exclaims with a laugh, “That’s it! That’s the reason! The man wants to be the knight in shining armor!”
Debates and theories aside, Williams believes “West” ultimately will win its share of admirers if given a chance, adding that there have been albums she initially had a hard time listening to but ultimately came to love.
“When I first heard `Dusty in Memphis’ I thought, `Oh, it’s too overproduced,’” she says. “I kept listening to it every day for a couple of years before I came to like it. I had a hard time with Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s because I hadn’t heard anything like it before. And Nick Drake ...”
One group of people already in Williams’ corner are the voters for the Americana Honors & Awards. A month ago, they made “West” one of the four nominees for Album of the Year. The “West” tune “Are You Alright?” was nominated for Song of the Year, and Williams herself was nominated as Artist of the Year. (The awards will be given out Nov. 1 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.)
“I just found out (about the nominations) because I’ve been busy touring,” says Williams. “I didn’t realize it was that time of year already. But I always look at it as a good omen. That’s what happened when `Car Wheels’ came out. I started getting a lot of nominations.”
“Car Wheels” brought Williams her second Grammy (Best Contemporary Folk Album). In 1994 she won her first (Best Country Song) for a Mary Chapin Carpenter hit recording of her tune “Passionate Kisses.” She also won in 2002 (Best Female Rock Performance) for the single “Get Right With God.”
Williams is an unequivocal Dylan fan - during the interview she cites his 1997 disc “Time Out of Mind” and the consternation it caused critics as indicative of “what I’m up against.” So when she is told that she is competing against Dylan’s “Modern Times” for Album of the Year, Williams replies, “Then I might as well forget (winning). I can’t believe I’m competing against Bob Dylan. It’s great to be nominated anyway.”
Told that Patty Griffin is in the running for Artist of the Year, Williams says, “I adore Patty Griffin. I first heard her 10 years ago, when I was living in Nashville. I need to send a congratulations (note).”
Williams, a Lake Charles, La., and daughter of poet and literature professor Miller Williams, proudly points out that she has built up a grassroots following over the last 35 years without commercial radio play, or videos.
She also underscores that her maverick inclinations date back to the beginning of her career. “As a folksinger in the 1970s, besides Bob Dylan and Judy Collins, I did Jimi Hendrix’s `Angel,’ and even Queen. I did `White Room’ by Cream, and `Politician,’ which is a blues song.”
Williams attributes her recent willingness to shake things up to Overby. “I met Tom and my life changed,” she says. “He’s this down-to-earth, Midwestern steak-and-potatoes kind of guy. And he’s a phenomenal music guy.”
He introduced her to “West” producer Hal Willner, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, D.C.-based electronica duo Thievery Corporation and Austrian dub remixer Richard Dorfmeister. “There’s a whole other world of music out there, and it’s great,” says Williams.
Her relationship with Overby “is a special gift,” she says. “It’s not something we wonder about, `Will it work out?’ We’re just together. The marriage part is a fun ritual. I just wanna get my ring, my rock.”
(At this point in the conversation, Overby promises Williams a visit to Borsheim’s in West Omaha, Neb., a store known for its huge selection of exquisitely designed and opulent jewelry.)
Overby also was instrumental in convincing Williams to include the emotionally naked “Everything Has Changed” on “West.”
“I didn’t want to put that one on the record because I recorded it when I was real tired,” admits Williams. “I did the original vocal at 2:30 in the morning. ...
“Because we had 24 or 25 (demo) tracks to choose from for the record, I made an A list and a B list. (`Everything’) ended up on my B list, but Tom and Hal wanted it on the A list. Tom was just adamant. He said, `Trust me, this song will be important,’ and it’s becoming an anthem of sorts.”
So is “Come On,” where, sounding a bit like Concrete Blonde’s Jeanette Napolitano and her voice dripping with contempt, she mocks a former lover with the double entendre: “You didn’t even make me, come on!”
“It was kind of a joke at first,” says Williams. “I didn’t think that much about it at first, but people just go crazy for it.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the blues- and hip-hop-flavored “Wrap My Head Around That,” a nine-minute dissection of a snakey lover’s lies that is not only full of disgust, but awe.
Because it is unlike anything she has done before, “I’m almost afraid to bring it up,” says Williams of the song, which has a steady, hypnotic pulse embroidered by pointed guitar riffs and squiggly atmospherics. “It was really off the cuff. I took it in the studio right after I wrote it. I have to credit Hal and Eric (Liljestrand), our engineer, for the production. That’s why I decided to work with Hal. He’s the king of that kind of stuff.”
And what about the guy who is the subject of the song?
“I haven’t gotten his reaction yet,” says Williams.
“All the guys I went out with were rock `n’ roll musicians: They drank too much and were noncommittal.”