Even Lucinda Williams admits she has trouble when asked to categorize her style of music.
When people ask me what kind of music I play, I just tell them folk-rock, said Williams, who is set to perform a two-night stint at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw on Wednesday and Thursday.
Country-soul is another one that Ive always loved; thats one that everyone has stopped using, but I love all of that old Conway Twitty, Clarence Carter stuff that was happening from the 70s through the 80s.
Not that it was any easier to label Williams back when the singer-songwriter, perhaps best known for penning the Mary Chapin Carpenter country hit Passionate Kisses, which won Williams her first Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1994, was first attempting to break into the music business.
At the time my first record (1979s Ramblin) was released, everyone said I had fallen in the cracks between country and rock, which was true, Williams said. The record companies just didnt have the market for my music back then. There was no such thing as Americana or alternative country; they didnt have alternative anything back then.
Inspiring, being inspired
Luckily, Williams was able to overcome the obstacles and find her audience. One fan who discovered her music at a crucial point in life was local musician Lynn Blakey, a member of the alt-country trio Tres Chicas.
Back in 1988 I had been playing music for a couple of years but I ran into a rough patch, got depressed and basically thought I was creatively done and quit playing music, Blakey said. I was only in my mid-20s, but I thought I had nothing left to say. I went back to school and tried to pretend I was moving on, but then I heard Lucinda's first Rough Trade Records release (the self-titled Lucinda Williams). I had no idea who she was. The record belonged to my roommate, and it was a complete accident that I had even heard it. I listened to it and something just clicked. Music and a lot of other things started making sense again. I became inspired again.
Williams is no stranger herself when it comes to taking inspiration from unusual sources.
I loved Joni Mitchell, but I knew I couldnt sing like that, Williams said. Most of the female artists that I listened to, like Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, they all had these amazing high ranges that I could never reach.
It was only when the country-rocker discovered the music of the groundbreaking female country artist Bobbie Gentry that something seemed to click. One of the first female acts in Nashville to compose and produce her own songs, Gentrys voice stopped Williams in her tracks.
When Bobbie Gentry came along, it was really cool for me, because she had this husky voice that was closer to my sound, Williams said. She really turned things around for me, because her voice was different than what else was out there.
Strip it down
Unfortunately, Williams still sees many of the same problems with country music that she first encountered decades ago.
The younger girls are being pushed by the industry to keep putting albums out that all sound the same, she said. Part of the problem I have with the modern Nashville sound is that while I dont think most of the songs are that great, I would still love to hear them stripped down. I dont care for the production of it; its overproduced, its too slick.
When Shania Twains popularity exploded, I tried to separate everything away from her voice. I remember saying to myself, Shes got a unique voice, but the production is so over the top. If you strip all of that away, theyll begin to stop sounding the same.
Williams is just happy that her fans, who have already sold out her first night in Saxapahaw, can now find her music easily.
If there had been an Americana format when I first started, thats where I would have been all along. A lot of labels were interested in me when I first started out; they liked my sound and my songs, but they just didnt know what to do with me. Now they do.