Graded on a Curve: Lucinda Williams,
Happy Woman Blues

With the release of her self-titled 1988 album, the career of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams experienced a definite upswing. Roughly a decade later her fifth record arrived, and she really broke out. However, she was on the scene a decade prior to cutting Lucinda Williams with a pair of releases on Smithsonian Folkways. In accordance with Women’s History Month, the second is getting freshly reissued on vinyl by the label. It’s a strong LP that considerably predates the Alt-country upsurge; indeed, Williams had a major role in defining the style. Happy Woman Blues is in stores now with the original sleeve art and lyric booklet.

My introduction to Lucinda Williams came through her “Passionate Kisses” 12-inch back in 1989. It was a casual buy, though not exactly a whim, as I was attracted by the Rough Trade logo on the back, particularly as not long before I’d been impressed by another US signing to the label, specifically Souled American and their debut Fe.

Upon taking it home and disposing of the shrink-wrap, I dropped needle and was immersed in a bright sound with chiming guitar and pretty vocalizing. It was quite far afield from the punk affiliated stuff that was typical of my listening diet at the time. Still, something kept me coming back to it. Well, a few somethings, like that guitar, and how the whole cohered into an exceptional piece of songwriting; a few years hence and “Passionate Kisses” would win her a Grammy through the hit version by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Overall, I was impressed more by the four tunes on the flip side, three of which were from a radio performance on WPFK, and one cut in New York City in 1983, the bunch underscoring Williams’ aptitude with bluesy material. It was a twist that connected quite nicely to the blues and roots stuff I’d been listening to prior to taking that offramp into punk.

A couple of years passed before I picked up a copy of Lucinda Williams, the LP from which “Passionate Kisses” was pulled for that 12-inch, and I dug the whole thing enough that I wasted little time in snatching up copies of her two earlier records for Folkways, both of which were then freshly reissued on compact disc.

The first was Ramblin’, dating from 1979 (originally titled Ramblin’ on My Mind) and concisely described as an acoustic blues and country album, with Williams on 12-string and John Grimaudo on 6-string as they dive into songs by Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, the Memphis Jug Band, Lil’ Son Jackson, Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, and a handful of traditional tunes.

It’s a nifty record that I like a lot, probably more than some will considering my attraction to her choice of material. On one hand, it’s not really indicative of the sound that eventually brought Williams to prominence, again nearer to coffeehouse folk-blues than to the twin paradigms of Alt-country and Americana, but as Ramblin’ plays its contents go down without a hint of the tentative.

This assuredness is partly why the stylistic developments of 1980’s Happy Woman Blues have stood the test of time so well. Right off the bat, Williams and her full band, complete with the fiddle of Malcolm Smith, dive into the Cajun atmosphere of “Lafayette” with a sense of comfort and relish that by song’s end, proves irresistible. They stay in this zone with “I Lost It” but scale it back a good bit as Williams’ taps into a richness that I associate with the work of Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash.

Helping matters is a lack of big-label overproduction. If Happy Woman Blues received far more critical praise than commercial success upon release, it’s warm aura, lacking in slickness, stickiness, or any of the techniques that would chain it to its decade of origin (like gated drums, an absence worth noting as there is plenty of rhythm here) sounds like it could’ve been recorded last week.

And yet there’s no chance of Williams being overtaken by the flood of comparable subsequent and current stuff, as perhaps the strongest factor in this record’s favor is the songwriting. Her work is distinguished (all 11 cuts are Williams originals) if again appealingly casual; she never strikes the ear as striving for a collection of bold statements in the attempt to impress. Instead, “Maria” paints a vivid picture while eluding worn-out tropes (not necessarily overused at the time, understand), the tune reminding me of both Merle Haggard and Townes Van Zandt.

It’s followed by some cooking slide blues, the title track strengthening ties to Ramblin’ and illuminating diversity that continued to flower on Williams’ later records. “King of Hearts” furthers this scenario, but with robust folk strum on matters of love stuff in place of the bluesy and the use of viola really accentuating a contempo feel. From there, “Rolling Along” is a sweet trip into the crisp-twang of post-Sweethearts of the Rodeo and pre-Eagles’ country-rock. “One Night Stand” extends this journey by dropping into a roadside honky-tonk.

In how it transforms the bluesy fingerpicking of Ramblin’ into a rich country context, “Howlin’ at Midnight” is one of Happy Woman Blues’ standouts; think Emmylou in Mississippi John Hurt territory and you’re in the ballpark. But hey, don’t get the impression that Williams lacks personality here, as it’s very much her album, in large part through sweetness and power of voice, a quality nicely showcased in the folky “Hard Road.” The fiddle returns with “Louisiana Man,” and as the title insinuates so does the Cajun feel from the record’s onset.

But it’s not quite a tidy bookend, as “Sharp Cutting Wings (Song to a Poet)” closes the album with a nugget that really puts me in a Townes frame of mind, underscoring why descriptors like Alt-country and Americana are useful as applied to Williams, as she’s ultimately difficult to stylistically pin down. Predating her first major step into the spotlight by almost ten years, Happy Woman Blues is in no way embryonic in style. If you dig her latter stuff, it’s a safe bet you’ll consider it a delight.


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