Interview: Lucinda Williams on Getting Paid $250 for Her First Record, Mad Men, and Her Favorite Place in New York City


“I get nostalgic watching that show Mad Men.”

As a matriarch of what became known as alt-country, Lucinda Williams is 30 years and nine studio albums in to her career, with no real signs of slowing down. She’s won three Grammy’s, recorded with countless musicians, including Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson, and in the last two years, released two albums. Williams and her band the Buick 6 will take over the Fillmore at Irving Plaza this weekend, where she will play a special retrospective show each night during the evening’s first set. On Saturday, she will play selections only from 1979 – 1989, on Sunday, she tackles 1992 – 2001, and on Monday night she’ll wrap with work from 2002 – 2009. Each night also will feature a second set of career-spanning selections.

We spoke with Williams earlier this week while she was on her tour bus, just outside of Baltimore, just 10 days after she got married onstage at Minneapolis’s First Avenue.

I hear congratulations are in order. How was the wedding?

Yeah, thanks. We didn’t have the all the traditional stuff, but there was an element. We got married onstage, but the band and I did a show, and I came out … Let’s see, and did my song “Plan To Marry,” and then I did a Hank Williams song–it’s for a project I started a few years ago, with Bob Dylan, and apparently they found these Hank Williams lyrics without the music. Like the Woody Guthire/Wilco thing. So Dylan decided he wanted to put out this CD and asked different artists to pick a set of lyrics and record it. I wrote the music and all came together quickly, did it by myself on guitar. It was this positive love song that Hank Williams had written called “I’m So Happy I’ve Found You.” So I wrote the music and recorded it and it’s been sitting in the vaults ready to go but we haven’t heard anything since then. But I thought it would be really cool to do at the wedding concert. I got a little choked up. But then I brought my Dad out to read a poem, “The Caterpillar.” The wedding party came onstage, my folks, his folks, couple close friends. My dad wrote the vows and we said our vows over the microphones and then after that, you know, the band came back out and [manager/now husband] Tom [Overby] stayed on stage, and we burst into “Long Way To The Top” and the Rolling Stones’ “Happy.” Tom sung with me on “Happy.”

Sounds like it worked out quite well then.

What really clinched the idea to do it on stage, was I e-mailed my folks, and my Dad says, “You know Hank Williams got married on stage. ”

It seems like this is all coming at a very unique part of your career, with the 30th anniversary tour.

It’s fun to do this in chronological order. Since we started this run, I’ve been naturally falling into talking more about “This is the album, this is where I was living.” Explaining the history about me and what happened between those 10 years, what happened to get a record deal. The audience really loves it, and its different from a regular show. The talking thing comes and goes for me. I tell everybody the reason I didn’t get signed was because there was no market for me. There wasn’t anything called alternative country or alternative rock. I have to remind them that this was 1979 – 1989, that more or less, there wasn’t a market.

Back when you were getting started, did you have any long term plans or was it pretty day-by-day?

I’m glad you asked it that way. It was day-by-day. Usually the question is, “What were your plans?” It sounds funny, but I didn’t have any. That’s the way the world was, my world was. We all just go with the flow. The economy was different, rent was cheap, I could do a day job a couple days a week. It was a totally different thing. The younger people today don’t have the options. They have to make the choice early: “Am I going to take this nine hour a day job or not?” I didn’t have to worry about that. I had good instincts, in terms of being at the right place at the right time.

In ’72, ’73 I had a gig in New Orleans. One summer, I was down there, and I got offered this little gig playing for tips at this little place on Bourbon Street. It was a coffee shop–a bar, called Andy. Each person had a shift and you’d sit on a stool. But it was a big deal for me because it was a regular gig. That was probably the biggest turning point in my career. While I was down there, I made friends with a guy named Jeff Ampolsk, he made a record called “God Guts and Guns” for Folkway [Records]. He called me and asked me to send something to Folkway, that he would give it to Moe [Folkways founder, Moses Asch]. Moe sends me a one-page contract with 250 dollars and says “Go make a record.” For some reason, I thought this was a traditional archive stuff, and they don’t want to hear my own songs. So that’s why I put tradition songs on there. But I was doing Dylan songs and some of my own, just not for what became the records. For the second one they gave me $500.

With playing all of this early stuff, do you feel nostalgic? Are you a nostalgic person in general?

I am a nostalgic person, but all the time anyway. I get nostalgic watching that show Mad Men. That’s the thing that makes me nostalgic. I was born in ’53, so I remember that era. I get it all the time, I live like that. I’ll get sad in the middle of the day, I guess because I’m an artist. I was always like that, even when I was a child.

The thing that’s cool, I wasn’t sure how I was going to adapt to this, playing the older stuff. I wouldn’t use a lot of those words now, that I had written, but as it happens, now, and relearning it, something shifted, and I don’t feel self-conscious about it anymore. I’m my own biggest critic and it’s easy to look back at your early work and say it seems so naïve. But that’s what a lot of people like about my early songs. I saw that later on, when I recorded Essence, and I got more confident into branching out into more of a rock sound. But people still come up to me and say the Rough Trade album [1988’s Lucinda Williams] or of course Car Wheels [on a Gravel Road] but I started looking back and saying, “What is it about those songs?” That made me go back and look at really early stuff. Another big turning point when Laura Cantrell recorded my song called “Letters” that she got off of a demo tape. She found that song–it’s ancient. I wrote it before I did the first Folkways album. I never thought that song would see the light of day.

There must be a whole lot of gems lurking somewhere in the closet.

[Laughs.] Well, that’s a matter of opinion. I have a lot sitting in the closet. But I still hadn’t quite finished a lot.

I know on [2008’s] Little Honey, you pulled out some oldies that hadn’t been finished: “Circles and X’s” and “If Wishes Were Horses.”

Yeah, I looked at them, dusted them off and added in a little bit. Little Honey is basically [2007’s] West part 2. The whole thing of looking back on early material, it’s fun. It requires broadening your perspective about your own stuff. You think this song isn’t as good as my early stuff sometimes.

Do you have any favorite spots when you come to New York?

It’s dangerous, it’s right across the street from the hotel. This bar that stays open all night. Tribeca Bar and Grill.