Published in the Hendrix Profile, Fall 2001
By J. Timothy Cloyd, Ph.D.
Lucinda Williams’ “Essence Tour” was right in time at Hendrix College on September 30, 2001. She jolted the College’s intimate crowd of 850 with dynamic energy in one of the most powerful and complex concerts of the Hendrix Special Events Series. The Series has included performances by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Richard Thompson, Van Dyke Parks, T-Bone Burnett, and Sam Phillips. She opened with Metal Firecracker and ended the show with a song Words Fell, which unfortunately did not make it onto her new Essence release. Williams’ style may be a type of country cross-over, but the depth of the conflicting dispositions in her music make her by far one of the most creative artists, songwriters, performers, and musical choreographers on the United States music scene today.
Williams’ ballads, which she performed with her trademark style, like Blue, Concrete and Barbed Wire, and her classic Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, all contain within them poetic nuggets of the essential pain, longing, and suffering of the human experience. These themes underlie her more obtuse works performed that night like Get Right With God and Joy. In Get Right With God she unveils the extremes to which people go to try and fill the longing for a sense of purification. In Joy she shouts the feeling of a sense of injustice and a refusal to give up in her refrain “You Took My Joy, I want it back!” Many of her songs on the Essence release and on her other records speak to the reality of the fragility of human relationships and the desperation of disappointment in the realization that things often don’t work out – such as in her song Reason to Cry. This night she outdid Tom Petty with her own song Changed the Locks.
Lucinda Williams’ poetic music is as layered and winding as William Faulkner and as straightforward as Eudora Welty. In her introduction to her song Bus to Baton Rouge she said “this is a southern song, but then again all of my music is southern.” What are we to make of this statement? It is, I think, that her music embodies all of the contrasts of the beauty, tragedy, traditions, and changes of the South. She showed the range of her voice that night and the range of her voice became a metaphor for all of the highs and lows of the burden of memories that make us human. She articulated this in Bus to Baton Rouge with her line “Ghosts in the wind that blow through my life follow me wherever I go, I’ll never be free from these chains inside and hidden deep down in my soul.” And “The driveway was covered with tiny white seashells. A fig tree stood in the backyard, there are other things I remember, as well, but to tell them would just be too hard.”
Her songs Get Right With God and Joy are both at points sardonic and at a more essential level they seem an outcry of a desire for meaning and for happiness. Williams’ music is bounded by these tensions and she played it out that night not only in her vocals, but in the complexity of her musical arrangements.
Her band’s skill and versatility on stage worked together to blast coordinated style, tenderness, and beauty. Bo Ramsey (guitar), Doug Pettibone (guitars, steel guitar, and harmonica), Taras Prodaniuk (bass), Don Heffington (drums) and Phil Parlapiano (b-3, keys, and accordion) are all musicians we know from playing with artists like Lyle Lovett and John Prine. Her band’s creativity was not simply background for Lucinda’s vocals, but they were symphonic. They were part of the text.
Lucinda used the skills of her band (Bo Ramsey playing a total of five different guitars that night, a Sliver Tone, a GibsonSG, Two Fender Strats, and others - often in slide blues style) at points as a burst of sound expressing the cry for deep meaning and fulfillment. At other points she used the band to translate the sparse expressions of minimalism contained in the emotion of the human saga – Like a Mahler experimenting with the limits of life and death.
Lucinda Williams’ lyrics and musical arrangements painted a vivid and authentic image of life with its strokes of suffering edged with a hope and a desire for fulfillment of the whole person. This energy and determination is not altogether different from the poetry of her father, the former Poet Laureate of the United States and Hendrix College alumnus, Miller Williams.
Deep in her music is an energy that underlies her art as a bedrock of resilience and determination to discover through her poetry this fulfillment and not to give in to resignation or be destroyed by the storms of life like a Towns Van Zant or Blaze Foley. She dedicated her song Drunken Angels to them that night. Hearing Lucinda sing her own song, Sweet Old World, about the tragedy of suicide was a moment we will all remember. She sang it with a depth of feeling that Emmylou Harris does not capture in the same way.
The electric passion of that concert was not an experience of cynicism that can result from the pain of the experiences of suffering, broken relationships, and the death of close friends. Lucinda has experienced all of those moments and she incorporates them into her lyrics. This concert was an affirmation that despite tragedy, somewhere in the spiritual impulse, the creative spirit, the poetic sensibility we can find solace, fulfillment, and meaning.
As I sat among many students that night, many of them reading their course assignments during breaks, I was reminded of the critical nature of the experience of art in any form of expression. That experience is essential to the Hendrix experience. I encourage all of you to take advantage of the rich “out of class” artistic and literary opportunities Hendrix has to offer. Take them in with careful reflection because they illuminate our human condition.