“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.”
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.
Still, the ’90s were a struggle for the alt-country/Americana cohort. It wasn’t until 1998, when Mercury released Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, that Williams’s name became widely known. On Mercury’s Lost Highway imprint, her music found a home — until two years ago, when Lost Highway faded from the map after Williams put out her most recent CD, Blessed.
The retooled Lucinda Williams marks the first release on the artist’s own label, Lucinda Williams Music. As thrilled as she must have been in 1988, she seems equally pleased with the rendition Lurssen coaxed out of the brittle old tapes.
“A lot of times when things get remastered, people listen to them and they say they end up liking the original better, because the remastered one comes out sounding too bright,” Williams explains. “So we wanted to make sure that all the original work was there — and it is. It sounds like the original one but better, mainly because you can hear everything. It’s like if you were in the studio and you were hearing it.”
Williams has been in the studio lately. She says she, along with her producer-husband Tom Overby and a constantly growing roster of musicians — guitarists Bill Frisell and Val McCallum, swamp rock old-timer Tony Joe White, and Elvis Costello alums Davey Faragher and Pete Thomas, to name a few — have been spending most evenings at Dave’s Room, David Bianco’s facility in North Hollywood.
“For some odd reason, I’m more prolific now than I’ve ever been,” she says, theorizing that it might have to do with the fact that she grew up around poets, chief among them Miller Williams, her father. “Most poets, my dad told me, are not even taken seriously till they’re at least in their fifties. I’ve lost track of how many songs we’ve cut. I was asking Tom the other night — I think it’s like, 34.”
Williams says the sessions have been dominated by a country-soul sound, citing for comparison Dusty Springfield’s 1969 classic LP Dusty in Memphis. Most of the material is new, though Williams mentions a cover of Percy Sledge’s “It Tears Me Up,” going so far as to sing a few bars of the chorus.
“I never really cut anything like that,” she says, describing the atmosphere in the studio “a Tony Joe White, Bobbie Gentry, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ kind of thing. We were debating whether we should do a double CD or put two separate ones out at the same time. What we’re gonna do, I think, is put them out about six months apart and kind of separate the songs so it’s, like, the rock one and the non-rock one.”