Lucinda Williams: Chasing down lyrical rabbit holes to find herself

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By Lee Cowan

/ CBS News

The lyrical gifts of songwriter Lucinda Williams

The lyrical gifts of songwriter Lucinda Williams 07:42

Not too long ago, at the legendary Troubadour nightclub in Hollywood, some of the music industry’s best and brightest (including Dwight Yoakam and Aoife O’Donovan) gathered to honor the woman Time Magazine once called “the best songwriter in America.”

“For the past year I’ve been in full-blown ‘Lucinda Williams obsession’ mode,” said Molly Tuttle.

Lucinda Williams, an artist so gifted with words that her colleagues struggled to find the right words to describe her. Allison Russell tried: “A lodestar artist and writer, poet laureate of the ages.”

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An all-star lineup performed last February at the AmericanaFest Pre-Grammy Salute to Lucinda Williams, at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. CBS News

The only thing missing was Lucinda Williams herself, who sadly was a bit under the weather.

Cowan asked Williams, “Is it hard to accept that love, sort of, sometimes?”

“Well, I can accept it,” Williams replied. “It’s just, I’m not sure how to respond to that, you know, all the awards and everything?”

Williams has always been pretty modest. She won her first of three Grammys back in 1994, for “Passionate Kisses.” Mary Chapin Carpenter made it famous, but back then Williams was too self-conscious to accept the Grammy in person. “I got nervous about, what am I going to wear? What if I can’t afford what I need to get to wear? I started nit-picking at myself to the point where I talked myself out of going.”

Lucinda Williams performs “Passionate Kisses”:

Lucinda Williams – “Passionate Kisses” [Live from Austin, TX] by Live From Austin TX on YouTube

Is it too much to demand
I want a full house and a rock ‘n’ roll band
Pens that won’t run out of ink
And cool quiet and time to think
Shouldn’t I have this
Shouldn’t I have this
Shouldn’t I have all of this, and
Passionate kisses
Passionate kisses, whoa oh oh
Passionate kisses from you
From “Passionate Kisses” by Lucinda Williams

Which, in part, is why – for all her success – there’s a certain anonymity to her, too.

She rarely followed the rules of stardom, which may have denied her the fame of some of her peers. No matter; she thrived on the fact no one could pin her down to a single genre.

Lucinda Williams performs “Something Wicked This Way Comes”:

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Lucinda Williams – Topic on YouTube

She said, “I was inspired by so many different styles of music, but I didn’t want to just pick one style to do. I love interpreting songs. I love songs.

She started writing songs as a child. When asked the first song she ever wrote, she replied, “‘The Wind Blows.’ Very simple and basic. The wind blows and it blows through the town and the people in the town hear it blow….!” 

She kept writing and performing for decades. Her breakout was “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams – Topic on YouTube

Music critics lauded it as one of the most important albums of the ’90s. Lucinda Williams had arrived – at the age of 45.

Cowan asked, “Are you glad in some ways that you were a late bloomer?”

“I don’t even really think about that,” she replied. “I don’t think about age so much. I mean, I’m 70 years old and I’m just now doing your show!”

She wasn’t country, she wasn’t blues, she wasn’t folk. She’s really all of those, and more. Her voice is raw. What it lacks in range it makes up for in power, so much so, her friend Emmylou Harris once commented that Lucinda can “sing the chrome off a trailer hitch.”

But it’s her writing – her phrasing, her storytelling – where her genius really shines.

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Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams with correspondent Lee Cowan. CBS News

She’s a Louisiana girl at heart, born in Lake Charles. She grew up bathing in that Southern Gothic gumbo that informs so much of her style…

Flirt with me, don’t keep hurtin’ me
Don’t cause me pain
Be my lover,
Don’t play no game,
Just play me John Coltrane
From “Righteously” by Lucinda Williams

“I’m like a female Tom Petty or Bob Dylan or Neil Young,” she said.

“There’s, like, that literary aspect of it,” Cowan said.

“Yeah, because of my dad.”

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Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. CBS News

Her father was the critically-acclaimed poet and literary scholar Miller Williams. Among his many credits was crafting the poem for President Bill Clinton’s second inaugural.

Her dad’s approval mattered to Lucinda ever since his scholarly friends would gather for literary jam sessions in their living room back in the mid-’60s. “My first audience consisted of these brilliant writers with these amazing minds,” Williams said. “The attitude was sort of, ‘Screw the music industry, these are the people who count.'”

Cowan asked, “Do you still feel that way?”

“Yes,” she smiled “Sorry!”

Despite her wariness of the music industry, she moved to Nashville in 2020, where she would soon find herself facing one of the biggest challenges of her life. “The stroke happened on the right side of my brain,” she said. “The whole left side of my body was affected. I had to learn to walk again.”

She’s progressed a lot since her stroke, but she still can’t play guitar.  “I can make enough of a couple of chords, you know, to get the idea, to get a note in my head and get a melody,” she said.

This week she’s releasing her latest album, “Stories From a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart,” where those singing backup include none other than Bruce Springsteen. “He starts going, ‘My New York comeback,’ as only Bruce can sing that,” she smiled.

Lucinda Williams and Bruce Springsteen perform “New York Comeback”:

New York Comeback by Lucinda Williams – Topic on YouTube

That alone is testament to her influence in the music world. People want to hear what she has to say.

Her memoir, “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You,” released this past April, became a New York Times bestseller.

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CBS News

But it’s in those folders, on legal pads and napkins, where Lucinda Williams is the most comfortable, chasing down lyrical rabbit holes to find herself. In almost every song, she’s laid bare her soul, and in the process has touched ours as well.

Come out West and see
The best it’ll ever be
I know you won’t stay permanently
But come out West and see 

Climb up on a rock
And stretch out in the sun
And close my eyes and let
My imagination run 

I’m tracing your initials in the shining sand
I’m counting out the days ’til I see you again

Who knows what the future holds
Or where the cards may fall
But if you don’t come out West and see
You’ll never know at all.
From “West” by Lucinda Williams

       
For more info:

     
Story produced by Robert Marston and Reid Orvedahl. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

     
See more: 

Enjoy these web exclusive performances by Lucinda Williams: 

Lucinda Williams performs “Fruits of My Labor” by CBS Sunday Morning on YouTube

Lucinda Williams performs “Lake Charles” by CBS Sunday Morning on YouTube

Lucinda Williams performs “Jukebox” by CBS Sunday Morning on YouTube

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