Lucinda Williams returns to the ‘Gravel Road’ that paved the way
To her fans today, Lucinda Williams is both poet and siren wrapped into one.
While her 1988 self-titled album earned her a cult following, other artists were having greater success with her songs early on. Tom Petty covered “Changed the Locks.” Mary Chapin Carpenter had a blockbuster with “Passionate Kisses.”
It was her fifth album, the Grammy-winning “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” that was Williams’s breakout at age 45. In 1998, Americana-roots fans fell collectively in love with the Southerner’s sparse lyrics and songs that oozed sex, beer, and heartbreak.
“It took a long time, but it happened the way it was supposed to happen. I wasn’t ready before,” Williams says in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. “I don’t have regrets. I just look at it like that’s when the timing was good. Now I’m 65 and still out there touring.”
She’s on tour now in celebration of the 20th anniversary of “Car Wheels” — the album that “kind of catapulted everything over the top,” she says.
We caught up with the Louisiana native ahead of her back-to-back Boston shows Monday and Tuesday at the Paradise, during which she’ll play that album in its entirety, along with other songs, with her band Buick 6.
Q. I read that it took a long time to make “Car Wheels.”
A. Oh God. I could write a book on that. I went in first with my original guitar player Gurf [Morlix]. But I wasn’t happy with the sound. Long story short, I went to [record a song] with Steve [Earle] and he gave me copies of his rough mixes and I loved them. I went in with Steve and Ray Kennedy to recut a few songs, once we got going, it was: “Wow this sounds great, let’s keep going.” Then it got stuck in the can for a year. In the meantime, the press was having a [field] day with me being a perfectionist, that I take so long to make albums because I’m hard to work with.
Q. So you’re happy with how it finally came out?
A. Yeah, definitely.
Q. When “Sweet Old World” turned 25, you changed a lot of it, and rereleased it as “This Sweet Old World.” What made you want to go back to redo that one?
A. I never was happy with the sound of that one. Sometimes the songs you wrote 30 years ago you sort of outgrow. You hope they stand test of time, but every so often, one you go, “Ehh . . .”
Q. Did you always want to be a songwriter?
A. I was always interested in writing — either poetry or songs. I knew I was interested in music before I learned to write songs. I was inspired by folk music out at the time. When I discovered Bob Dylan in 1965, that’s when I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I set the bar really high at a really young age.
Q. How old were you?
A. I was 12; that was “Highway 61 Revisited.” We were in Baton Rouge. My dad [poet Miller Williams] was teaching at LSU.
Q. When did you start performing?
A. My parents had divorced; my mom was in New Orleans; I’d go see her in the summer. [One summer] I stumbled across this place in the French Quarter. They said, you can come in and audition and play for tips. I got my guitar, auditioned, [was told] you can come in three nights a week, and that was it for me. I was over the moon. I was like “Oh my God, I got a regular gig, I don’t want to go back to school” [at the University of Arkansas].
I called my dad and told him, and he said, “Well, honey, if you want to do this, that’s OK.” Who knows what would’ve happened if he said no.
Q. Was your dad a big influence on your writing?
A. Yeah, I’d say so. He was really adamant about the difference between poetry and songwriting. When we lived in New Orleans, I was fortunate because his college students [would] bring albums over to the house. I remember them discussing whether Dylan was a songwriter or poet. [The students] said he was a poet. My dad said, “No, he’s a songwriter.” I understand why they said poet, but my dad was right, because it really is a different animal when you don’t have the music to support the words.
Q. That’s an interesting point.
A. But yeah, I was inspired by my dad’s view on writing. Pretty much through to “Car Wheels,” I was still showing him my songs because I so desperately wanted his approval. He was really honest with me.
When I was working on “Lake Charles,” I sent it to my dad, and there’s the line “Did an angel whisper in your ear/hold you close/take away your fear,” and he said, “Honey, you can’t use ‘angel’ here because you already used it in another song before this.” That was one of his quote-unquote rules — not to use the same words. He finally relented and said, “OK, go ahead and use angel, but that’s it — you’ve used up your angels.” I said, “Thanks, Dad.” [laughs]
Q. I love that.
A. Yeah, that’s the kind of stuff he taught me. The economics of writing.
Q. The song “Ghosts of Highway 20” [from the 2016 album of the same name] feels like a companion to “Car Wheels” — the singer returning home, but at different points in life.
A. Yeah. Absolutely. Working on that song, I was thinking, what am I going to say that I didn’t already say in “Car Wheels?” “Car Wheels” was me as a child in the backseat of the car. “Ghosts of Highway 20” is me going back and looking through older eyes at the same town.
Q. What’s your songwriting process?
A. I wish I knew. [laughs] My brain goes all the time. I’m always writing things down, and I save everything. I never throw anything out in case it comes in handy in a song down the road. I keep all this stuff in a folder. I’ve kind of gotten to a point now where I’m working on half a dozen songs at one time. When I get in the mood, I’ll get them out and see if something pops out.
Q. Heartbreak is a big theme for you. When you got married [to manager Tom Overby in 2009] your fans were scared you’d have nothing to write about.
A. Even before that — when we got engaged. [laughs] Then I came out with “Blessed,” which was my way of saying: See? There’s plenty more to write about.
At the Paradise Rock Club, Boston, Nov. 5-6 at 8 p.m. Tickets $38.50, www.ticketmaster.com