If you go
What: Lucinda Williams
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 31
Where: Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder
More info: chautauqua.com
Plenty of musicians slip under the thumb of record executives, kissing creative control goodbye. Lucinda Williams was not one of them. Decades later, Williams continues to do exactly what she set out to do.
The Louisiana-born musician's talent and prose has marinated in a pot of music gumbo for a hefty portion of her career. Critics and journalists struggled to tag her sound. Record labels were hesitant to sign her because she fell "between the cracks of country and rock."
With the occasional twang and blues that's fused into her folk rock, the artist has been hailed as a pioneer of Americana music. But this was back when Americana music didn't exist. And what's even more peculiar, she said, it was a British punk label that first signed her in the late-1980s.
"I still get a kick out of that to this day," she said. Rough Trade Records (The Smiths, Warpaint, Morrissey) "hadn't even seen me play," she said. "They said, 'We love your songs, we love your voice, let's make a record.'"
Thirteen albums later, Williams is performing behind 2016's double record "The Ghosts of Highway 20" at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 31, at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder.
Williams said that although a new Americana act seems to emerge "almost once a week," back in 1978 nobody knew what to do with this sonic hybrid.
"Nobody would sign me because there was no market for it," she said.
So she forged her own genre.
A little bit country
Williams said she had a crucial decade, from 1974-1984, that helped polish her craft. She traveled and performed among a "vital singer-songwriter scene" in Austin and Houston. And although she could have chased Los Angeles record label dreams early on, she said she just wasn't ready. She was doing what she loved: playing music.
Lucinda Williams cannabis
Denver marijuana dispensary Kind Meds developed a marijuana strain and named it after Lucinda Williams.
The musician was honored.
"It's awesome," Williams said. A Denver friend snapped a photo of the bud and sent it to her, she said.
"I was thrilled," she said. "I haven't tried it. I've got to find something that doesn't make me paranoid. Maybe this doesn't, I don't know. But back in the day when I used to smoke, back in the '60s, it was pretty mild. We'd all laugh and giggle while we'd listen to Buffalo Springfield or Led Zeppelin. As the years went on, it just got so strong, it would make me paranoid, and anxious, so I just quit doing it after a while."
Here's how Culture Magazine describes the strain:
"Willie Nelson isn't the only country rocker to get a strain or two named after him, and we're glad. Created by Denver's own Kind Meds, Lucinda Williams is now immortalized in strain history and like her music, it's a hybrid. The smell is one of a kind, with big berry flavors up front and menthol lurking as well, like a cough drop that you smoke. Nearly monochromatic, there's so much green and white it almost looks like the Algerian flag. The high is like a passionate kiss, warm and engaging, with amazing stress relief noted by several staffers that were crunched for time. For those that needed an appetite boost, they found Lucinda perfect for getting their munch on while simultaneously making food taste better. If you find yourself at a diner on the side of the highway, don't say you weren't warned."
"It wasn't about the music business," she said. "I was still honing my craft. That's what I think is missing today; musicians seem to skip over that period and want immediate gratification. They want to sign with a record label right away."
Williams' father, the late Miller Williams, was an accomplished poet and visiting professor. She picked up the guitar at age 12 and followed in her father's creative footsteps with the art of songwriting, she said. ("Passionate Kisses" from her 1988 self-titled album, snagged her a Grammy award for best country song in 1994 with Mary Chapin Carpenter's recording of it.)
The road wasn't smooth, though. Williams said she was bounced around in the 1980s with different start-up labels, many of which went under.
"The infrastructure of the music business was changing," she said. "It was sort of a clusterf***. I got bounced around and pushed and pulled from this label to that. Finally when I signed with Mercury, Lost Highway developed under its umbrella, and that was one of the first places I found a home."
After her '80s stint with the punk label, she stuck with Lost Highway for 10 years, citing a good amount of creative freedom, but still, she was under the umbrella of a corporate label. That means regulations, rules, unsolicited song cuts, double-album rejections, distribution-label wars and reformulating her songs.
But she wasn't afraid to put her foot down from the beginning. Williams said that in the 1990s, Country Music Television was interested in a video from her, but it had to be that "typical country" kind. Hell no, she said. She was more interested in Nirvana's style of videos.
A little bit punk
When she was recording the 1998 hit "Drunken Angels," from her first commercial success, the album "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (that won a Grammy for best contemporary-folk record), she received some unwanted advice.
"They told me there were too many verses in it," Williams said. "And I said, 'Uh-uh. I'm not taking a verse out. It tells a story and it has to be in there.'"
The story memorializes Austin songwriter Blaze Foley (a pal of Townes Van Zandt), who was shot to death in 1989.
Then there was the time when she had a meeting with a record executive and he said he liked her songs, "but you need to go back to the drawing board because none of your songs have bridges in them." He wanted the formulaic verse-verse-chorus-bridge, she said.
"This was kind of the last straw," she said. "Two of the songs specifically he mentioned that didn't do what he thought they should do were 'Pineola,' which is now one of my most often-performed songs, and 'Changed the Locks,' which Tom Petty recorded. When he told me that, it really pissed me off."
Following a moment of insecurity, she got out her Neil Young and Bob Dylan albums to "double check my sanity," and she found that her two musical icons didn't have bridges in their songs either.
"I was like, 'To hell with them, I'm not going to listen to that,'" she said.
A little bit indie
Now, her signature voice seasoned, her latest back-to-back double albums have been hailed by critics. Plus, this year marks the 25th anniversary for her 1992 album, "Sweet Old World." Williams said that in the fall she will release an anniversary edition with remastered songs from the album, including four bonus tracks. The best part is, Williams and her manager husband, Tom Overby, can ride life at their own pace after creating Highway 20 Records, under the umbrella of Thirty Tigers.
"Now I have more freedom than I did before," she said.
Williams said she is constantly jotting down ideas ("I never go anywhere without my notepad and pen in my purse") and is currently in songwriting mode.
Like many of her songs, a new one she's penning honors a friend. Texas music journalist Margaret Moser (Austin Chronicle) was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in February 2013. Moser, Williams' friend since 1981, is "one of these beautiful smart and wonderful women," Williams said. Moser is known as the "Grande Dame" of the Austin music scene.
A little bit poetry
As an accomplished songwriter, Williams said she loves learning about new music — but no matter the genre, the writing has to be on par. She said she's currently digging the hip-hop stylings of Atmosphere ("Oh my God, he's a great writer.") and Fink, an electronic artist from the U.K.
A self-proclaimed "daddy's girl," Williams gave tribute to her father's deadly disease (he died in 2015 of Alzheimer's) with "If My Love Could Kill." Williams, a Grammy-winning songwriter, speaking of her father with pure love, respect, loss and inspiration, said writing runs in the blood, but poetry was her dad's thing.
"I experimented with (poetry) a little bit," she said. "I sent something to my dad once and I said, 'Dad, can you tell me what you think about this? Is this a poem?' And he said, 'Honey, there's some good stuff here, but I think this wants to be a song.' I was like, 'OK, I'm not going to pursue this, he's the poet, I'm the songwriter. There's only one poet in the family and that's my dad."
But with her dad passed on, she said it freed her up to experiment more.
Williams feels like she's at her best in life right now, which only makes her strong stance against The Man taste even sweeter.
"I still get pissed off and angry, I still grapple with the dark side of life, but I still have my sense of wonder and I still believe in the good of mankind," she said.