In Praise of Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams at the Warfield- 2001

I first saw Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore in 1997, when she was just about to release her breakout album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. A few years earlier I’d seen Johnny Cash and he’d done a fairly complete job of curing me of my distain for country music. I’d soon be musically educated to learn that what I didn’t like was actually what was considered “new country” at the time- your Garth Brooks/ Billy Ray Cyrus kinda music.

I’ve always had a preference for great lyricists- Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Randy Newman. And I’d soon find that so-called country music has some of the best songwriters in the world as I delved into the work of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda.

Lucinda and Band at The Fillmore – 1997

But I had no idea she’d become one of my favorite musicians at that first Fillmore show. I just liked what I heard and made the effort to get a shot of her with her band backstage in the stairway.

Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 1997

Cut to two years and a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album later. “Car Wheels” was a huge hit and critics had gone apeshit over a blend of rock, blues, country and folk. They were calling it “Americana” and “Roots Music” when in truth it was just a great blend of all of it anchored by a true poet.

Lucinda Williams at The Warfield – 1999

And Lucinda had clearly been inundated by media with her new renowned, and it took about half an hour before she came out from her dressing room to do a portrait with me. But she was incredibly kind and gracious when we did it. And I guess she’d been doing lots of annoying photo shoots because she said “I LOVE the way you take pictures! Other photographers always tell me to do this and that and look this way and you don’t do none of that!” Then she gave me a hug- something I wasn’t used to from my rock and roll subjects- and cementing me as a fan for life.

And in saying this she also helped me crystallize a part of my shooting style, which values comfort above all else. Without it, you’ll never get an honest portrait.

I think she’s had to deal with a lot of photog-douchebags over the years, because I’ve heard that she’s not a big fan of being shot- but she always seems to allow me to do a quick portrait- as long as I’m patient (she’s still a superstar, after all, and anointed by Time Magazine as America’s Best Songwriter).

Doug Pettibone at The Fillmore, 2003

But to be fair, I had a lot of help and advocacy from her guitarist for many years, Doug Pettibone. Somewhere around 2000, The Warfield had put up a shot of the band performing, and he’d seen it. I met him at The Fillmore the next year and he asked me if I knew the guy who shot it. “Yeah, I know him pretty well,” I said. We ended up hanging out and he came with me to a jam session at Capp’s Corner that was mostly comprised of cast members of Beach Blanket Babylon getting away from their camp and into some classic rock and soul tunes. He tore it up and we’ve been friends ever since.

Lucinda puts out a new album about every two or three years,  and it never disappoints. There aren’t too many artists who’s vocals and lyrics seem to get better all the time- Bonnie Raitt is an example. But what sets her apart, especially as a female artist, is that she can be honey-sweet one moment and whisky-sour the next without coming off as contrived. She can be growly, angry, and raunchy, then tender, sad, and lovely, then pointed, poignant, and political.

And something else I find attracts me to her music (and is often the case with artists I admire- be it Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, or late-era Beatles) is the percentage of songs that aren’t about love. While she can pine over lost lovers and do done-wrong songs with the best of them, she also sings of suicide, wealth, abuse, and in one case how her ex-boyfriend couldn’t get her off. Not exactly the stuff of country music clichés.

Lucinda Williams at the Fillmore – 2003

She’s so smart, yet so American. So vulnerable, yet so strong and sexy. If I had to pick one word to describe her, though, it would be “authentic.” If you wonder where the heart of country music went, look no further.


Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 2003
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