Lucinda Williams is the best songwriter in the United States. Really. Shove the mephistophelean specter of Dylan off to the left, let the earthy warbling of Nanci Griffith flutter back to Austin, leave James Taylor to hum placidly in the elevator, blow Emmylou a kiss, remind yourself that Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt are moment of silence deceased, and recognize that nobody puts words atop music better today than Williams.
Who”s Lucinda Williams? Shame on you. With a career more than twenty years in the making, the superb 1998 Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road to her credit, and a brand new collection, Essence, in stores now, you”d think she could enjoy a certain presumption of recognition. But the Louisiana-born Williams, who performs tonight at the Michigan Theater (with Canadian crooner Ron Sexsmith), doesn”t really need to worry about the promotional manufactories of the record business or the trendy celebration of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” roots music. After all, she”s got her songs.
Essence finds Williams slower and shakier than her work in Car Wheels. In songs like “Reason to Cry,” “Lonely Girls,” and “Steal Your Love,” her voice pushes through you like the first autumn wind. It”s a tremulous, mezzo-soprano mixture of loneliness, plain-spoken heartache, and a longing so desperate you feel her wounds in your own chest.
In “Blue,” she writes, “So go to confession/Whatever gets you through/You can count your blessings/I”ll just count on blue,” and turns its simple phrasing into a hymnal apotheosis of regret and solace. Williams is the daughter of the poet and professor Miller Williams (who read a poem at Clinton”s second inauguration), and grew up around luminaries like Flannery O”Connor and James Dickey. Something in her work its quiet fidelity to the Delta blues past, its plangent sense of time and loss really does evoke the gothic woe of classic southern literature.
This is not the nasal yodeling of the Dixie Chicks or the kitsch pluck of Shania this is literate, southern music that pulls your heart out from under you like a trap door.