Lucinda Williams’ uncanny ability to create songs that are at once poetic and emotive has won her a loyal following and an enormous amount of praise.
One of the greatest lyricists alive, she’s worshipped by aspiring singer/songwriters and respected by the best in the business.
For more than two decades, Williams has excelled at folk-rock tunes about falling in love, making love and having good times in the Crescent City.
But her most memorable performances are those songs that richly detail doomed relationships, loneliness, little rock stars battling demons or a small town’s reaction to a suicide.
Few vocalists can deliver a love-sick lament as convincingly as Williams, who sings in a singular, unhurried manner, her Southern drawl flowing through the speakers like teardrops.
She can also spit acid in the face of a man who has done her wrong. Venom courses through her voice as she tells an ex she has changed the locks. And the F-bomb has perhaps never been put to better use in popular music than when Williams addresses the lover who promised forever and split after just those three days.
A multiple Grammy winner named “America’s best songwriter” by Time magazine in 2002, Williams’ material has been covered by Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Mellencamp and numerous others.
So it came as no surprise when she received the Lifetime Achievement award for songwriting at the Americana Music Association’s 10th Annual Honors and Awards show this month in Nashville. Although honored by the accolade, Williams wasn’t looking forward to accepting it.
“I’m all nervous,” she said during a phone interview with the Herald just before the ceremony. “I have to give a big speech and I don’t know what to say other than ‘thanks everybody.’”
Songwriter supreme Lucinda Williams worried about a silly acceptance speech?
“I know, right?” she said with a laugh.
Williams proved she has plenty of creative juice left with the March release of “Blessed.” Critically acclaimed just like every album she has issued since her 1988 self-titled masterpiece, “Blessed” has been selling well, reaching No. 15 on the Billboard 200.
The album kicks off with the rocking kiss-off “Buttercup” and includes the deftly handled “Soldier’s Song,” as well as the stirring valentine “Sweet Love.”
But the one that grabs hold the tightest, begs for repeated listens and turns despair into beauty is “Copenhagen.”
“And I’m 57 but I could be 7 years old,” Williams sings. “Because I will never be able to comprehend the expansiveness of what I’ve just learned.”
It’s a brilliant lyric about being on tour in Denmark and receiving the news that her longtime manager and friend Frank Callari had died.
“I just wanted to express that feeling that regardless of age, when something like that hits you, that when somebody dies you’re so close to, it completely blows you away,” Williams said.
“Copenhagen” has resulted in the singer/songwriter’s first music video. The animated imagery depicts a man trapped in a life-support machine. He remains the same age while his loving wife grows old and eventually dies, leaving the man with a difficult decision. Director Dave Willis created the poignant video without Williams’ input.
“That’s probably the first time I’ve ever given anybody complete creative control,” she said. “My main concern was, since it was so subtle, was everyone going to get it?
“But then everybody started responding and Luke Lewis at Lost Highway (Williams’ record label president) called and said, ‘My eyes welled up with tears it was so beautiful and made me miss me Frank.’”
Among the elite
In addition to touring in support of “Blessed,” Williams was among the elite group of artists chosen for the album “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams,” which came out Oct. 4. Bob Dylan had been given a collection of the country great’s unused lyrics. Dylan recorded two songs and hand-picked other musicians to do the rest. Jack White, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson and Norah Jones were among those who received the call. Williams performs the gorgeous “I’m So Happy I Found You” solo on acoustic guitar.
“I was sent three songs to choose from and immediately picked that one,” she said. “I had never seen a Hank Williams lyric like that: ‘I’m crying because I’m so happy I found you.’
She added, “A happy love song ballad, it just clicked.”
Dylan has been a fan of Lucinda Williams since at least the late 1990s when he had her open one of his tours. When the two were introduced, Williams didn’t tell him they had met previously, in the late 1970s, before she released her first album and was “just a shy little folk singer.”
Williams’ voice teemed with excitement as she told the story about playing the old Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. Dylan was visiting the place where he used to perform to greet his old pal, owner Mike Porco.
“Mike was this little Italian guy who took a liking to me, he was so sweet, he said (Williams adopts Italian accent), ‘I wanta you to meet a friend of mine, this is a Bobby.’”
“I got chills right now just thinking of that rush,” Williams continued. “I have never experienced anything like that in my life. This is my hero since I was 12 years old. I was so star-struck it was actually a physical, chemical thing -- I’m serious. It just blew my mind.”
Williams unleashed an adorable laugh.
“That night Dylan said, ‘Stay in touch, we’re going on the road soon,’ but I never heard from him,” she recalled.
Williams saw a crowd gather around Dylan and knew he would be leaving Gerde’s soon. She planted herself right by the door.
“He reached over and gave me a kiss on the cheek,” she remembered fondly. “Everybody in the Village said, ‘We heard you met the Great White Wonder.’”
Back to Tampa
Williams, who recently recorded Dylan’s “Trying to Get to Heaven” for an upcoming Amnesty International album, performs Wednesday at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg. It’s her first Tampa Bay performance since she played the venue in 2004. This reporter attended that concert seven years ago. Williams delivered an impassioned, unforgettable performance.
“I remember that night,” she said. “Under the stars. It was really great.”
Wade Tatangelo, features writer/columnist, can be reached at (941) 745-7057. Visit his blog at heraldbuzzworthy.blogspot.com.
IF YOU GO
What: Lucinda Williams
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 19
Where: Jannus Live, 16 Second St. N., St. Petersburg
Information: (727) 565-0550 or www.jannuslive.com