The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa
June 17, 2011
Lucinda Williams’ music a blessing for all
By Michael Shapiro
Lucinda Williams has struck a nerve. The title track of her new album “Blessed,” has sparked a movement of people wanting to share why they feel blessed.
It all started with the cover art for the new disc. Williams’ husband and band manager, Tom Overby, thought it would be intriguing to ask people to write the word “Blessed” on a poster-size sheet of paper and stand for a photo with it.
Then something unexpected happened: the people asked to pose for the photos wanted to talk about why they feel blessed. So Williams hired a filmmaker to document their stories.
Some of those heartfelt, almost confessional, video accounts appear on Williams’ web site, www.lucindawilliams.com.
“It’s so moving — I was just in tears watching some of that stuff,” Williams said in an interview with the Press Democrat this month.
“Happiness is relative; joy is relative,” she said. “You might look at someone and say, ‘how could they feel blessed, they don’t have much money.’
“So the song starts, ‘we were blessed by the girl selling roses.’ It just kind of blossomed from there.”
Now Lucinda’s fans – who call her by her first name – have posted comments about why they feel blessed on her web site and Facebook page.
And HBO is considering funding a documentary on the topic, Williams said.
It all makes sense because Williams’ songs at their essence are about feelings. Emotions in her music range from anger to elation to vulnerability.
There’s something ineffably human about Williams – she’s won Grammys, and Time even named her the “America’s best songwriter” in 2002, but she hasn’t lost touch with herself or those whose lives remain hard.
“Blessed” and the companion videos on her site are testament to those who find beauty in life despite their suffering.
As the song says: “We were blessed by the girl selling roses who showed us how to live. We were blessed by the neglected child who knew how to forgive. We were blessed by the battered woman who didn’t seek revenge. We were blessed by the warrior who didn’t need to win.”
Though Williams’ fans are fiercely devoted to her and she’s won tremendous critical praise, mainstream mega-stardom has eluded her.
Perhaps this is because her music doesn’t fit neatly into any single category. Her songs range from country to rock, from folk to blues.
The daughter of a poet and pianist, Williams grew up in Lake Charles, La.
She doesn’t see many parallels between songwriting and crafting poems, but she did learn something essential from her father, the poet Miller Williams.
“You have to make every word count,” she said. “And don’t rely on overused cliches.”
She gained notice with her 1988 self-titled album that featured the rollicking and defiant song “Changed the Locks,” later covered by Tom Petty.
Her next album, 1992’s “Sweet Old World” included “Passionate Kisses,” a song Mary Chapin Carpenter covered and turned to gold.
Her breakthrough was 1998’s “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” Like her early work, it’s gritty and soulful, with perhaps less youthful bravado and more introspection. “Wheels” won a Grammy for best folk album.
Williams, 58, has released several albums since then but none appears to have elicited the response of “Blessed.”
The disc’s first song “Buttercup” – about telling a guy to get lost – has garnered airplay on local stations like KRSH, but there are other gems here.
“Seeing Black” is a pained, questioning song about suicide, inspired in part by fellow songwriter Vic Chestnutt’s self-inflicted death on Christmas Day, 2009.
When a friend kills himself, “I always feel angry,” Williams said. “It’s the ultimate mystery. I’ve been pretty depressed before, but I can’t imagine going that far.”
Giving insight into the journey from a song’s beginnings to the finished product, Williams has included a companion disc of “kitchen table” versions of each song on “Blessed.”
She starts with just a guitar and recorder “because I can’t write music, so I got to get it down on tape.”
Now that she has a digital recorder, she found the quality to be high enough that she could release the early versions.
They’re not polished – they’re raw, plaintive, honest. Just like Williams herself.
Michael Shapiro writes about entertainment for the Press Democrat. Contact him at email@example.com
Who: Lucinda Williams
When: 8 p.m. Friday, June 24
Where: Wells Fargo Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa
Tickets: $39 to $45
Information: 546-3600 or wellsfargocenterarts.org