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Lucinda Williams: 10 Songs

Lucinda Williams loves Kansas City and the feeling is mutual. Over the past two decades, she has played in our town so often that she seems like a local. Though she grew up in spots all over the American south, her combination of country, blues and rock is the kind of thing that Kansas City has long embraced. Her songs are full of smoke and soul, fire and brimstone, heartbreak and healing. There has never been a time when her style has been out of fashion in these parts. Now 63 years old, Lucinda Williams is the rare artist who only fully hit her stride in her forties. Given the strength and depth of her catalog, it seems odd to recall that she was once a reticent performer and a painstakingly slow worker who took years between albums, almost as if she periodically retired. But once she gained momentum, she never stopped. In anticipation of Lucinda’s return to Kansas City on August 21 for a show at CrossroadsKC, here are 10 songs spanning her stellar career. “I Lost It” (1980) https://youtu.be/EIdStpflsK0   Lucinda’s 1979 debut album “Ramblin,’” which consisted entirely of classic blues and country songs, gave no hint that she would become one of her generation’s great songwriters. But just a year later, she returned with “Happy Woman Blues,” an album consisting of 11 original songs that established a powerful point of view. “I Lost It” – better known to most fans through the rocked-up version later recorded for the “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” album – shows Lucinda’s deep Southern roots, as her voice does a do-si-do with a fiddle that is straight out of the old “Louisiana Hayride” radio show. “Changed the Locks” (1988)   https://youtu.be/j62knwQAWG8 Lucinda waited eight years to release her next album, and the simple title “Lucinda Williams” suggests that her third long-player was a new debut. Already established as a gifted songwriter, Lucinda 2.0 emerged as a more confident and commanding performer, as evidenced by this audacious track. “Changed the Locks” is a Russian nesting doll of a song, as Lucinda reveals the escalating steps she’ll take to escape the clutches of a former lover that she can’t quite resist, from changing the locks to changing the name of her town. “Pineola” (1992)   https://youtu.be/urOyfRJkKTc Four years later, “Sweet Old World” proved that “Lucinda Williams” was no fluke. This was a major artist, and “Pineola” proved to be one of her great story songs, a based-on-real-life tale of a suicide and all of the pain it leaves behind. “Lake Charles” (1998)   https://youtu.be/EP9ZFkqt5Lw Lucinda toiled over her next album, taking six years to get it just right. It was worth the wait, because “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” is an indisputable classic, one of the finest recordings of its time. You could pick a list of 10 great Lucinda Williams songs just from the 13 tracks on this masterpiece. “Lake Charles” is Lucinda at her most sumptuous and it features one of her loveliest vocal performances, lending empathy to the story of a man longing for home in his dwindling days. “Essence” (2001)   https://youtu.be/8xMhDC_RcQ4 Finally, the dam broke. After a series of long absences, Lucinda began to deliver new music with surprising regularity, releasing a new album every two or three years over the next two decades. The title track to her 2001 album, “Essence,” is an example of what separates Lucinda Williams from so many of her peers. Not just a potent lyricist, she has rare and subtle gifts for melody, and the soaring, arching chorus of this song is one of her finest moments. But, still, those words.  Love gone wrong is a recurring theme in Lucinda’s songs, and there is plenty of pain and recrimination, but there is also a defiant sense of hope. She never gives up on the idea that she deserves happiness, especially when it comes as half of a pair. “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” (2003)   https://youtu.be/GBhAKEcCBg8 The cranked-up guitars suggest the Rolling Stones, but the lyrics are a tribute to Paul Westerberg, late of the Replacements, whose career has long been marked by transcendent songs and a self-sabotaging streak that made his music legendary to many but a mystery to most. “I climbed all the way inside your tragedy / I got behind the majesty / Of the different shapes in every note / The endless tapes of every word you wrote.” No one has ever better encapsulated what it was like to get lost in both the myth and the reality of the Replacements, and as someone who was lost there for years, I would know. “Unsuffer Me” (2007)   https://youtu.be/vYCmSLhet_0 Languid and brooding, this song slowly unspools from a place of deep personal darkness all while pointing toward the light. If “Essence” was about craving love like a drug, “Unsuffer Me” is about needing it for spiritual survival. “Surround my heartbeat with your fingertips / Unbound my feet / Untie my wrists / Come into my world of loneliness and wickedness and bitterness / Unlock my love / Unsuffer me.” Rarely has an artist unleashed such a terrifyingly beautiful vision about the need for another. “Real Love” (2008)   https://youtu.be/1oPgZoXZ1Z0 When Lucinda finally found happiness in her personal life, it spilled into her music, like this track, which was released while she was engaged to Tom Overby, whom she married in 2009. By Lucinda’s standards, “Real Love” is a trifle of a song, but it’s a deliriously happy trifle, the kind that captures the feeling and excitement of a new relationship in a way that even the most florid language rarely does. “East Side of Town” (2014)   https://youtu.be/NDUwpnxP0ps A disarmingly angry song about economic inequality, “East Side of Town” contains echoes of Johnny Rivers’s “Poor Side of Town.” But while that song entreats a former lover to come back to the wrong side of the tracks, Lucinda’s is a dare to a mendacious man to show his face in her neighborhood. “Doors of Heaven” (2016)   https://youtu.be/odshPZOBYYY Released earlier this year, “The Ghosts of Highway 20” is Lucinda’s second-straight double album, suggesting that she’s either experiencing her most productive period as a songwriter or that she’s less hesitant to show the fruits of her labor than she was as a young artist. On this song, Lucinda plays the role of a woman ready to meet her eternal reward. “I think I’m tired of living, let me in,” she sings, which seems more than a little ironic for an artist who appears happier and more prolific than at any time in a career that spans nearly four decades. Lucinda Williams is as full of life as she’s ever been. Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the new novel “Mellow Submarine,” which is available from Amazon. He's on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.