Though few know it, Lucinda Williams' father is a highly regarded poet and scholar whose encyclopedia of poetic forms was a beacon during the era of free verse.
"It doesn't always come up. Let's put it that way," Williams says, laughing. "The poetry world is such a different world. It was like an apprenticeship when I was growing up. I was just really blessed and fortunate, because I had so much available to me in terms of being able to learn. I didn't actually take any creative writing courses. But I sat in on some of his workshops and I had him there critiquing my songs from an early age. As soon as I started writing, I would show him and he would critique it and make comments and I would go back and work on it some more and then show it to him. It really was a built-in creative writing course, in a way. Plus, his being around other writers, I had a pretty good audience at an early age."
Musically, her father introduced Williams to folk, country and blues while his twentysomething writing students introduced young Lucinda to the rock of the day, including the Doors and Jimi Hendrix. But Williams wasn't able to balance her poetic and musical identities until she experienced the songs of Bob Dylan, who set the bar for her own career:
"I first heard Highway 61 Revisited in 1965, and that was the record that explained as much as I could understand at that point, being 12 years old. But I identified with where he was coming from because his music was coming out of the folk and rock styles and his lyrics out of the poetry world. Here was a guy who finally, finally put the two worlds together and found the connection between the two. Needless to say, it had a profound impact on me. I've been struggling ever since, trying to do the same thing, kind of. I set pretty high standards for myself at an early age."
Those standards have occasionally proven too much for Williams, resulting in fans frequently having to wait years between albums. The results, of course, have always proven worth the wait—most famously, the six-year gap between her masterful Sweet Old World and her 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Thankfully, the acclaim that release generated has coincided with waits that have become ever shorter between new albums: only three years before Essence and then just two years after that, with World Without Tears. These days Williams is positively overflowing in new songs:
"I've got 24 new songs. I've got enough for two whole records already and that is what we have been doing at these shows. This is the first time ever I have had brand-new songs [in the set]. We went in the studio already and have rough demos. We are mixing it up a lot, and the new material is going over really well."
Her most recent double disc, Live @ The Fillmore, gives a strong sense of why Williams has enjoyed such a fearsome reputation as a live performer. Still, her Vegas debut in June 2002 was not among her career highlights. According to those in attendance, after managing only two songs, Williams broke into tears before staggering off stage. To hear Williams tell it, the incident was nothing more than a case of Vegas throat:
"It was one of those weird things that never happens. My voice just shut down and I couldn't sing. It never happened before and I guess it is bound to happen at some point during a singer's career, and that's the only time I've ever had to do that. It was horrible. I hope that won't keep people away from the show."
It won't. Since then, Williams has returned to the Hard Rock as an opener for Tom Petty and as the headliner of her own show at the House of Blues, where she returns this week. Not that this show is likely to sell out, because Williams has never had a following as large as her talents. A truly once-in-a-generation songwriter, a sizzling, charismatic live performer, and yet no hit records on the wall. How is that possible? For a long time, her music fell in the crack between country and rock. And, as that border vanished in the video age, Williams never got around to making a video:
"I just haven't done them. I don't know. I never could agree with how it should be done. When Sweet Old World came out, and right before Car Wheels, there was talk of a video and people went to MTV and asked if they would play it and the answer was, probably not. So it just never happened. A lot of time since then, when the subject of a video comes up, the label wants to decide who is going to direct it and what kind of video it is going to be. But it is another creative process I have to be involved in, just like my records."
As brilliant as she is uncompromising, Lucinda Williams remains a beloved figure to those who have taken the time to listen or been lucky enough to hear her. If you have ever felt the need to try something new, Williams is the concert most worthy of taking a chance on with your hard-earned dollars—despite what you may have read about that one night at the Hard Rock.