Lucinda Williams Brings Her 1988 Breakthrough Disc Back to Life
"I was always a rocker underneath it all," Lucinda Williams says by phone from Los Angeles. "It just took me a while to get there."
Lucinda circa Rough Trade
She has just finished naming her favorite song from the 1988 album Lucinda Williams: "Like a Rose," a quiet number.
"The starkness of it, the simplicity of it," she explains. "It's just got this real intimate sound to it."
In the studio 25 years ago, Williams tried but failed to persuade Gurf Morlix to play electric guitar on the song. "I kept saying, 'I want it to sound like "I'll Be Your Mirror," off the Velvet Underground album.' Even though it was this simple ballad, I wanted it to have this edge to it. But Gurf didn't agree, so he played acoustic guitar, and I played acoustic."
Williams has found herself reminiscing a lot lately about the days and nights she and her backing band spent recording what fans came to know as "the Rough Trade album," after the label that released it.
Lucinda Williams made its creator an alt-country darling, and it emerges anew this week, entirely remastered and paired with a second disc containing bonus tracks and a live performance taped in the Netherlands in 1989.
Though she says she doesn't normally listen to stuff once it's out, for this occasion she had to make an exception.
"It's sort of an emotional trip, Williams says. "Seeing my young days, my young self on the cover. The majority of the artists who played on that album are gone now -- that makes it even more of a special emotional ride. John Ciambotti, the bass player; Donald Lindley, the drummer. Juke Logan, who played harmonica on 'Changed the Locks,' we lost him [last] year. Chris Gaffney, who played accordion on it, is gone; and Doug Atwell, the guy who played fiddle, he died in the '90s. They're not here to talk about it and celebrate it. That's kind of a strange feeling."
Williams says Gavin Lurssen painstakingly remastered the disc from the fragile original tapes. But compared to the birth of its progenitor, Lucinda Williams v2.0 came about fairly quickly.
Two albums Williams released in the 1970s had gone nearly unnoticed, and the singer had spent the first half of the ensuing decade kicking around the Austin music scene before moving to LA, where, she says, she got her education in the business of music. Eventually Sony offered her a development deal.
"They give you enough money to live on for six months, and you write songs, and then you go on in the studio and demo the songs. That was the very first time I didn't have to work a day job, so I was over the moon," Williams recounts.
The demo featured the likes of NRBQ cofounder Terry Adams and Garth Hudson, multi-instrumentalist for the Band. But the record companies didn't bite.
"All these different labels started sniffing around -- they knew something was there, but the bottom line was they didn't know what to do with it, they didn't know how to market it. It fell in the cracks between country and rock -- which of course as we all know is now known as 'Americana.'
"I had one meeting with this guy -- I think he was from Elektra Records," Williams continues. "He said, 'Well, I think you need to go back to the drawing board, because a lot of your songs don't have bridges.' I felt pretty dejected after that meeting. And then I immediately went and put on my Neil Young and Bob Dylan albums and looked at the lyrics and just decided the hell with that guy."
Finally, in 1988, along came Robin Hurley, an Englishman who'd moved from London to San Francisco to head Rough Trade's incipient U.S. imprint. Hurley recounts in the liner notes for the re-release that it was love at first listen.
Agrees Williams: "It sounds like a Cinderella story, but he called me on the phone and said, 'We love your voice, we love your songs -- do you want to make a record?' And he had never even seen me live! And I said, 'Sure, why not?'"
Love didn't equal money: Rough Trade sprung for a princely $15,000 to record Lucinda Williams. "It was a labor of love," the singer says. "It was a low-budget thing even for that time."
The album was well received. The Village Voice's Robert Christgau gave it an A- in his "Consumer Guide" column and on his '88 "Pazz & Jop" critics' poll ballot he deemed it the year's sixth-best LP. Mary-Chapin Carpenter's cover of "Passionate Kisses" charted on Billboard in 1993, garnering Grammys for herself and Williams. Tom Petty cut "Changed the Locks" -- one of the songs the Mercury A&R man disdained, Williams notes with satisfaction -- on the soundtrack for the 1996 movie She's the One.