It’s difficult to interview Lucinda Williams without the past coming up in conversation. This is both because of the success she’s had throughout her career, and her active role in revisiting those early successes in recent years.
Williams, who will perform at The Ritz Raleigh on Feb. 7, has spent much of the past two years touring behind the release of a new recording of her 1992 album “Sweet Old World” in the form of 2017’s “This Sweet Old World.” That effort was made in order to celebrate the original’s 25th anniversary, with the rerecording finding new life within the older songs, featuring new arrangements beneath lyrics nearly three decades old.
That project and the resulting tour was followed by a tour in 2018 celebrating the 20th anniversary of her seminal album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” The album, which was recorded, shelved and then rerecorded before finally seeing its release in 1998, became a cornerstone of both the alternative country and Americana formats. It also placed the exclamation point on what would go down as a career year for the singer-songwriter; the album won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Continuing to tour behind those works, as well as highlighting latter albums that reflect the most prolific output of her career, Williams spoke to The News & Observer to touch on the original reaction to “Car Wheels,” finding new life in old songs, and an upcoming performance in Durham.
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Q: What were your immediate thoughts when you realized that “Car Wheels” was being received like it was when first released in 1998?
A: It kind of just crept up on me. You never realize that anyone really likes an album just after recording it; you always hope the stuff you record does well, but you never really know. I’d broken through with the self-titled album [released in 1988], which was when people kind of discovered me, so to speak. With “Car Wheels,” the first sign [of its success] was it receiving constant good reviews, and it appeared in a lot of Best Of lists at the end of the year. Then there was the Grammy nomination, then winning...it was just all of these steps, and each one was more mind-blowing than the one before.
My first incredible moment came just before the release of “Car Wheels,” when I won the Grammy for “Passionate Kisses” [Mary Chapin Carpenter’s hit, which won Best Country Song in 1993], because that really opened the door to things. That was the same year that I moved to Nashville, and I ended up on Lost Highway Records, and just all of these incredible things were going on.
So I was surprised that so many people discovered me through “Car Wheels,” because it wasn’t like it was an overnight success thing. It was just that they hadn’t heard of me yet at the time. You don’t really see people beating the pavement for 25 years before they find their success these days, since there’s the internet and all that now. People ask me all the time if I wish [success] had happened sooner, and I just always point out that everyone develops as an artist differently. I mean, Bob Dylan was writing amazing songs at 19, but I wasn’t writing at the level that I did later until my 30s. Everything happens when it’s supposed to.
Q: Having spent the past couple of years revisiting older work, I was wondering if you’ve found that helps recharge the batteries as a songwriter, or stifle creativity?
A: No, it definitely doesn’t stifle it. A lot of different things help to recharge the batteries — I love that expression — and I found a lot of things refreshing when it came to rerecording “Sweet Old World.” I was a little hesitant, just because some songs tend to stand the test of time better than other ones, and some of them I wasn’t really that excited to revisit. I found that with those, I had to get out of my own way, and realize that things change over time.
The whole process was so different from the time that I originally recorded it, with a different band, and some of the songs being performed in an entirely different key than the original. My voice is lower, but I think it’s richer, and on some of those songs I found my voice to have been thin. We put a fresh spin on those songs, and when I’d listen back to the new recordings, I found them to sound a lot cooler.
When you do something like that, it’s an entirely different thing, completely different from going in and cutting new songs. Even rehearsing. Yesterday, we were working on a couple of the songs we’re performing this tour, and you find yourself performing in a whole new way that’s exciting.
Q: Your tour stop in Durham that was set for this past December with Charles Lloyd & the Marvels was rescheduled for this upcoming March. How has the experience of working on the road with Lloyd and company been different from your solo tours? [The concert has been rescheduled for March 18 at the Carolina Theatre.]
A: It’s a whole other thing. It’s Charles’ show, basically, and I’m basically just featured in it. He goes out first and plays, then I go up and do about five or so songs, and then we end the night together. Playing with those guys has been a phenomenal experience, and is totally different from anything I’ve ever done before. To hear my songs in that context is very moving, very emotional. It’s just a really cool thing that I highly recommend everyone try to catch if they can.
Who: Lucinda Williams with Drive-By Truckers and Erika Wennerstrom
When: 7:30 p.m., Feb. 7
Where: Ritz Raleigh, 2820 Industrial Drive, Raleigh
Info: RitzRaleigh.com or 919-424-1400