I’m not trying to make any presumptions about the type of person who reads this blog, but I’m going to hazard a guess that most of you haven’t heard of Lucinda Williams. Modern Country is about as far away from the “Independent/Alternative” ethos of WKNC as you can get. The genre is, in the opinion of most outsiders, directed by radio executives, skews towards a very young audience, dumb, and not especially risky. However, it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, for most of the history of Country music, it had the reputation as the most adult of genres. And not “adult” in the sense of safe or inoffensive, but adult in the sense of emotionally complex and preoccupied with serious problems and difficult subjects. This is the domain of Lucinda Williams.
Williams was atypical even in her time. She began her career in earnest at the age of 39, which is far from unheard of in country music, but for a woman in any kind of entertainment debuting at that age is still remarkable. Prior to then, she had released a few obscure traditionalist records in the early 80s, and when I say traditionalist, I mean like country circa 1930 when the genre hadn’t yet been segregated from the blues. Her self-titled 1988 album was released on Rough Trade. If you aren’t familiar with that label, it was founded by U.K. punks in the late 70s and was most known for releasing abrasive post-punk and obscure indie bands prior to signing their flagship band, The Smiths.
By the late 80s, Country had mostly made its peace with them long-haired hippies and their rock and roll, but this ceasefire did not extend to punk. This prejudice didn’t hurt Williams too much, as her music is only punk in spirit, but it should give you an idea of where she’s coming from. She has very little reverence for good old family values, which was a barrier long since broken down by the likes of Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire, but Lucinda took this a step further by just being relentlessly sad. Country music has a long history of deeply unhappy music, but usually, it takes the form of a bad relationship or a family tragedy, Williams denies any such histrionics in her music. She just sounds depressed, to be honest. Even when she sings about love and relationships, there’s a kind of wistful yearning that doesn’t let up. She asks at one point on her debut “Am I too blue for you?” The answer was yes, evidently, as it would take a number of years before success finally chased her down. She never really had a top 40 country hit, though many people would find success covering her songs, her stature has grown in recent years, especially in the Americana and Alt-Country movements she helped pioneer.
If you’re interested in Lucinda Williams’ music, I would recommend either her 1998 masterpiece “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” or, if you aren’t up for a whole album, her song “The Night’s Too Long.” The song is a strange piece of songwriting. It’s in the third person, telling the story of a thinly veiled author insert named Cynthia who can’t take no more small-town living and sells all she has to move to the city. The song is honest in a lowkey way. There’s a happy ending, but there’s no closure, no grand sweeping statement on what Cindy’s story means as if a person’s life could mean anything at all. There’s just that lingering sense of wanting something more and deciding to settle for being happy anyways.