By Matthew Bretz
Writers always like to start stories about famous personalities they have met with something like- “at first glance…”, or “my first impression of…”. I almost did that here, but the truth is that’s not what caught my attention. It wasn’t a first look or a first impression. What got me to sit up and seek was a boisterous, unbridled, whiskey flavored laugh. Amidst a room full of chatter, tape recorders and the incessant sound of scribbling by the other press around me rose the distinct sound of a lady troubadour, having seen it all and then some, enjoying herself immensely in the world she herself helped to create. The world of backstage camaraderie.
Lucinda Williams has three Grammys under her worn leather belt. She has been nominated eight more times. Beginning in her twenties she conquered the country seen playing with the likes Emmy Lou Harris, Dolly Parton, Vic Chestnut, Steve Earle and the list continues. During the 90’s she took some time off the road and had gainful success as a songwriter- most notably for Mary Chapin Carpenter. Then as the millennium came to a close she surprised us all again by crossing over to rock. She’s recorded with Elvis Costello, Willy nelson, John Hurt and eve with Irish punkers Flogging Molly.
Credits aside, this lady can still wail. Her style is reminiscent of the beer swagger days of old when guys like Gram Parsons and Steve Earle rebelled in the land between country and rock. But then it’s not really reminiscent is it? Because she was there too.
MB: What’s your take on the state of the music business right now?
LW: Oh, here we go! Advice from the older woman time..ha!
MB: Let’s call it advice from the more experienced musician.
LW: yeah that’s better! That’s actually a very common question during interviews these days. I guess it makes sense, no one know what the hell is going on anymore. I think the answer to that question is pretty evident though. The big guys got greedy and now that people don’t buy Cds anymore the whole business is changing again.
MB: What do you mean by “changing again”?
LW: Well the whole thing went through a big change right after I got signed for the first time. In the early days it was all about the music. When I came on board singer/songwriters were ruling the school. Then came MTV and image consultants and creative consultants and a lot of other bad words. I got in just in the nick of time. If I had waited a couple of years I don’t think they would have let me in the club. I mean think about it- there a lot of really great guys that would never have gotten signed if they were trying to make it now. Bob Dylan would never get signed today and what would music be without him. Paul Simon, Neil Young- those guys never would have been signed. Makes you wonder how many great musicians we’ve been missing out on in the name of commercialism.
I think I just lost my record deal by saying that…ha ha!
MB: Do you think a musician even needs a record label to have a successful career nowadays?
LW: Not really no. I mean it’s nice when it works because it’s all there. Your management, publicists, A&R, producers- everything is there in a pre-made box. When it doesn’t work is when your label won’t let you have creative control and tries to change you.
MB: So major labels aren’t necessarily the devil?
LW: Not exactly. It’s a business and especially now when business isn’t doing so well they want to play it safe and go with what works. The trick is- you have to be the boss. You have to have something they want bad enough that if you threaten to walk away- and you have to be ready to walk and mean it- they will bend over backwards to keep you around.
MB: So that’s what you think about the majors. What about just finding a small indy label with ambition and heart?
LW: Sounds good to me. I love indy labels and I love the artists they come out of them. They can afford to be experimental and take a chance on someone that might not have the image the major labels would be looking for. In the end all you really need is a good management company and a good publicist…oh yeah and you better have some good music man!
MB: You’ve been playing a lot of the bigger festivals lately. It seems to be getting more and more popular with artists around the world.
LW: festivals are great on so many levels. You don’t have to bring a stage. You don’t have to take care of lighting and sound or even food. All you have to do is plug in and play. And you don’t even have to play all day if you don’t want to- which is good for me because my rock band only has 12 songs. Guess I need to write some more. And when you’re done you get to hang out with friends from the road that you don’t usually get to see very often. You get to watch each others shows and then kick back and have a few drinks. Jamming with my friends and hanging out backstage are two of my favorite things to do. I love it!
MB: Are the fans different at music festivals then a normal venue?
LW: They’re usually dirtier that’s for sure. I’m kidding! That’s another great thing about playing these big festivals. You might have 2 or 3 thousand people watching your show. Now it’s possible at least a few of them…let’s say a hundred or so…don’t even know who you are. You just gained fans that didn’t even come to see you.
MB: I kind of doubt there are even a hundred people out there that don’t know who you are. So after playing country for so long, how is rock treating you?
LW: I played country for a very long time and in the end I think I just ran out of things to say to the country audiences. Now I play rock and it’s working for me. You gotta do what works for you.
“You gotta do what works for you” . Short, simple and perfect- just like most of Lucinda’s songs. With that she was gone and I was left to ponder what she’d said.
Lucinda started writing at the tender age of 6 and picked up the guitar at 12. The world of music has never been the same. But much more than a legend, this firecracker is still rocking it. New albums, world tours…and she doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon.
“I ain’t even close to being done yet!”- Lucinda Williams