For a lot of folks, Lucinda Williams came out of nowhere this past year. Suddenly there was this hyper-literate, middle-aged, female, rockabilly bohemian on network TV. Then, in early 1999, there was her album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which topped the Best of ‘98 lists.
Of course, nobody on the back side of 40 is an overnight success, and Williams put out her first important recorded work a good 11 years ago. But until recently you could have put her entire fan base into a single football stadium. Her one previous brush with the big time was back in 1993-94, when Mary Chapin Carpenter had a hit with Williams’ song "Passionate Kisses." Williams got a songwriter Grammy and a few bookings on TNN. But in 1994 she didn’t have a new product to push, or even a record deal.
The sad fact is that American culture today doesn’t know what to do with an artist who reads and writes. Pop music has trouble with a middle-aged rockabilly; country music with an untraditional woman. And our whole postmodern media universe is so damned hip and ironic that it can’t recognize a true, heart-on-the-sleeve bohemian when it sees one. No wonder Williams has had a tough row to hoe.
She finally broke through, in spite of all this, because she stands for, and upon, a set of feelings and traditions that are (paraphrasing one of her songs) too cool, and too real, to be forgotten. Her lyrics drop references to Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Robert Johnson, and Howling Wolf. But you don’t need the clues to hear those echoes. The rattle of a snare drum, the texture of a slide guitar, and that aching, high-lonesome catch in her voice say it all. Of course, the power of the hillbilly blues rests on the peculiar agony and ecstasy of Southern American history and tradition. That’s the wound from which almost all of America’s cultural lifeblood has run. And it is still wide open in this music.
Williams has a deep claim on the Southern heritage, from the rebel side of the tradition. As is well known, her father is Miller Williams, a major American poet. He got famous for 15 minutes once himself, when he read at the 1996 Clinton inaugural. Lucinda lived most of her early life with him, after he was divorced from her mother, and he still critiques all her lyrics-in-progress. She calls their relationship an ongoing, lifelong creative writing workshop. Miller Williams’ name will live for his written work, but it is also worth noting that he was among that small, proud number of white Southerners who did the right thing when the civil rights movement came along in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Less well known is Lucinda Williams’ late, paternal grandfather, Rev. Claude Williams. Claude Williams was a Presbyterian minister who was radicalized by a combination of the social gospel movement and the reality of the Great Depression in the South. He become one of the early organizers of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, an interracial organization of the rural poor that, in the 1930s and ‘40s, wrote one of the bravest and most hopeful chapters in the history of American social movements. Commenting on that legacy, his son Miller once said, "It taught us that it was possible for black and white people in the South to fight for their rights, and do it together."
Of course the elder Williams was defrocked, hounded by redbaiters, and utterly without honor in his own country. When you’ve got that in your family tree, a little tussle with a record company is no big deal.
There is no overt politics in Lucinda Williams’ music, which, in this baffling age of Wal-Mart globalism, is probably just as well. But the family tradition lives on in a dogged attention to the outcasts and outsiders of this world, and in a downright sanctified insistence on the beauty and dignity of everyday life.
In its own way, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is Southern literature at the turn of another century. It affirms the cultural vitality and distinctiveness of the real South that exists today, and which (yes, Mr. Faulkner) is still a place where the past is not dead, or even past. Williams works with a visionary sweep, but it’s coupled with a fanatic devotion to emotional and sonic detail. As she noted in an interview, it doesn’t work to write about someone riding around in a car listening to music, when you could have them "riding in a yellow El Camino listening to Howling Wolf."
The best writing—poetry or prose—is like that. It’s concrete and direct, rooted in things the reader-listener can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. It gives you a non-virtual reality that occupies an actual space and time. The people in Williams’ songs are from somewhere real and they feel real human emotions, raw and unfiltered. That is exactly what our popular culture seems to be fleeing today. And it is the one thing we can’t escape.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.