Lucinda Williams has found both critical acclaim and commercial success as a performer, but she still feels like an outsider in Nashville, where she is based.
While her songs have been recorded by what she calls “the braver” Nashville artists — Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, and Emmylou Harris — Williams says, “I definitely don’t feel a part of what I call the straighter country music world, the country music industry of Nashville,” despite the fact that she lives in Music City.
“I’m definitely not connected in with that world,” Williams adds, noting that this is both by choice and by virtue that “my music doesn’t fit there.” She continues, “Nashville is so straight. I guess I’m sort of considered an outlaw here with Steve Earle… They used to write grittier stuff. It’s gotten so puritanical.”
Williams says she doesn’t like CMT, doesn’t listen to country radio, and resists being labeled as a country act. “I don’t want to be identified with the stuff that’s on country radio now. Country music to me is Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn.”
At this point in her career, Williams can afford to stand alone. After years of toiling as a road dog putting out critically acclaimed albums that barely rang the registers at retail, Williams broke through with her 1998 album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” which propelled her into an elite league of artists — a league in which critics’ darlings can also sell 500,000 units.
Now, Williams and her label, Lost Highway Records, are hoping to repeat — and build on – the success of “Car Wheels” with “Essence,” due June 5.
“You always get a little nervous when one record does so well,” Williams says. “The next one, you just hope it’s as good or better than the one before.”
While she says there was no external pressure to outperform “Car Wheels,” Williams admits she put that pressure on herself. “It’s a little scary when you have to follow up a gold record that won a Grammy. It’s not like it sold 3 million copies, but it’s the most successful record I’ve ever had, so now I have more people listening to me than ever before.”
Still, Williams calls “Essence” her best album yet. She co-produced the record with Charlie Sexton, along with Bo Ramsey and Tom Tucker. “I feel good about my vocals on this record,” she says. “I always get insecure and nervous when I make a record. Until the last minute, I’m questioning myself and second guessing, and I didn’t do that as much on this one.”
Williams penned all of the tracks on “Essence” solo. She doesn’t co-write, she says, because, “I’m my own artist. I’ve tried writing with people, but it’s just silly.”
The title track, features labelmate Ryan Adams on tremelo guitar. The song’s love-as-drug metaphor explains the lyrics “Baby, sweet baby, whisper my name/Shoot your love into my vein” and “Baby, sweet baby, can’t get enough/Please come find me and help me get fucked up.”
Williams describes another song, “Get Right With God,” as “a song version of a painting,” comparing it to the religious folk art she collects. While she says, “I am on a spiritual path. I am trying to get right with God,” Williams emphasizes that the song “doesn’t have anything to do with any particular religion.”
Williams says she appreciates U.S. triple-A and Americana radio stations, which, “are supporting all the artists like me. They are more varied. They are the only thing left in radio that is trying to stand up and be independent.”
Williams, known for her frequent hops to different label homes, stayed with Island Def Jam Music Group (IDJMG) for “Essence,” her sixth album, but was shifted to become the flagship artist of IDJMG’s new label, Lost Highway Records.
Williams describes Lost Highway as “kind of like a little shelter in the midst of all the dance bands the bigger label [IDJMG] has. It’s kind of a guarantee that you won’t get lost in the shuffle. It feels real comfortable.
“With the success of ‘Car Wheels,’ it was pretty apparent that a record can do well without buying into the whole corporate ritual that you have to do to try to get your record sold,” Williams says. “It was successful based on my live shows and word-of-mouth. I like to think that inspired them to let that be the philosophy behind this new label. On a major, the stakes are so high. You have to sell, like, 2 million records before you’re considered worth keeping on a label.”
Williams began playing festivals and a few clubs in late April and hits the road in earnest in June. That tour will take her through the U.S. and Canada, and there are preliminary plans for her to head to Europe in September.
Lost Highway VP of A&R and artist development Frank Callari says, “She’s such a great live act that it’s the best way to spread the word.” On the heels of the success of ‘Car Wheels,” he notes, “It will be interesting to see how things go this time, because now we’ve set it up. Whether it be from the public side or industry side she has a great base of recognition, sales, and respect.”
Williams will perform on CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” June 4 — the night before the album’s release — and the label is also creating a Lucinda Williams Web site within the Lost Highway site to promote the album and the artist.
As a side project, Williams will contribute to Ralph Stanley’s album of duets with female singers, “Clinch Mountain Sweethearts,” due this summer.