BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Back in the late ‘80s, I was a voracious reader of music magazines. Rolling Stone and Musician were the biggies (Blurt not existing yet, of course), though I also cherrypicked the reviews sections of various other mags, from Spin to Playboy to People. (Working in a bookstore helped immeasurably in that regard.) Growing up in a small town in Texas, it was the only way to find out about new music that wasn’t classic rock, top 40 pop or mainstream country.
The name Lucinda Williams popped up a lot in these magazines in 1988. What intrigued me about the articles about her was that they never agreed on what banner she should fit under. One magazine called her the best new rock artist of the decade, another the best new country artist, another the best new blues artist, another the best new folk artist. I figured that any musician whose style baffled the critics was worth checking out, so I purchased the Lucinda Williams album without hearing a note.
Nowadays we call what Williams created “Americana.” But in 1988 we had only vague terms like “roots rock,” and that seemed inadequate to describe the Louisiana native’s seamless blend of country, blues, folk and rock & roll. Drawing from nearly every permutation of American music gave her a sonic aesthetic as fresh as a new suit and as comfortable as an old flannel shirt. Few albums before or since sound both as new and as lived-in as this one – even if you’d never heard her music before, it sounded familiar without ripping anything off.
And then there were the songs. Daughter of a poet, product of an era that revered Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed as enthusiastically as Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon and Hank Williams, the L.A.-based singer/songwriter balanced unflinching honesty and raw emotion with careful craft and an eye for fine detail, penning a peerless set of songs. Wrapped in melodies so memorable I’d find myself singing them days after listening, these tracks – from the poppy “Passionate Kisses” and “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” to the bluesy “Changed the Locks,” from the country-rockin’ “The Night’s Too Long” to the Tex-Mex “Big Red Sun Blues” – became instant classics. “Side of the Road,” as perfect a portrait of the ambivalence of true love as can be found, is, to my ears, one of the best songs ever written by anyone anywhere.
Though by the late ‘80s I’d acquired plenty of so-called rootsy albums, from the likes of Steve Earle, Gram Parsons, the Long Ryders and the various 60s country rockers, Lucinda Williams was the first Americana record I truly, truly loved. It’s been a mainstay of my record collection ever since, often cited when asked about great songwriters and a perennial entry on all-time top 10 lists when I’m asked to make them. It’s an album that means a great deal to me.
But, like a lot of LPs that have been firm favorites over the decades, I confess to not having listened to it in a long time. Part of this is because I’ve internalized so many of these songs that I don’t need to spin it regularly to remember it; partly it’s because of the massive volume of new music that’s been released since. (Duh, you say, but seriously—think about how much music has spurted out since the beginning of the internet age and cheap home-recording.) So a new 25th-anniversary edition of Williams’ seminal work was just the excuse I needed to spin it again.
This all sounds like the buildup to something negative, as if I’m going to say, “Damn, this isn’t as good as I remember it.” Wrong – this story has the fairytale ending for which I hoped. Lucinda Williams holds up just as well as I remember, its songs sounding just as wonderfully written and performed now as they did when I first heard them. Listening again helps me appreciate the songs that didn’t slap me across the face the first time – the bitter ballad “Abandoned,” the erotically-charged treatise “Like a Rose,” the plainspokenly acidic cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Asked For Water (He Gave Me Gasoline).” I’m marveling anew at how perfectly Williams’ band and sessioneers (many of whom have passed away since this record came out) accompany her vision, especially wonderfully tasteful guitarist Gurf Morlix. I’m listening a quarter of a century after I first heard it and still falling deeper and deeper in love with this untouchable record. I don’t like to use this word much, but for Lucinda Williams I have to: it’s a masterpiece.
It’s so good that the extras included in the new two-disk edition (released by Lucinda Williams Music/Thirty Tigers; www.lucindawilliams.com) almost gild the lily. As with the 1998 Koch Records reissue, this version adds the acoustic tracks from the Passionate Kisses EP, including great takes on Memphis Minnie’s “Nothing in Rambling” and Lil Son Jackson’s “Disgusted,” and the B-sides to the “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” single, with an early take on the lovely “Something About What Happens When We Talk” and the otherwise unreleased and equally pretty “Sundays.” Also included is a sterling live set recorded in the Netherlands in 1989, which not only hits the obvious highlights of her career thus far, but also includes a great version of John Anderson’s “Wild and Blue.” And all the bonus cuts appear on the second disk, letting the original album stand on its own.
Is this the definitive version of Lucinda Williams? For someone who’s lived closely to this album for 25 years, the answer is unhesitatingly, unambiguously yes. Even if you own previous versions on Rough Trade and Koch, this is worth the time and money. And if you’ve never experienced Lucinda Williams before, this is a discovery worth making and music that will live in your heart and mind long after the disk stops spinning.
DOWNLOAD: “Side of the Road,” “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” “The Night’s Too Long”