Lucinda Williams talks 'Car Wheels,' perfectionism and more before St. Petersburg show

After a trip from Tampa on the Outlaw Country Cruise, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter takes the stage with Drive-By Truckers at Jannus Live.
Published January 25

A rock cruise makes for a nice paid vacation, but it isn’t exactly Lucinda Williams’ dream getaway.

“My idea of a good vacation is not having any appointments or anything, not having any commitments,” the singer-songwriter said recently from her home in Los Angeles. “Of course, you say that, then I get home and I’m all bored. When we’re out on the road, we’ve got all these people around us; it’s like a family. You get home off the road, and there’s nobody. Especially in L.A.

“I dream a lot about moving again,” she added. “I get restless after a while. Now I’m getting restless again, and I kind of want to move again to a smaller city.”

Any town would be lucky to have her. Williams is still a revered alt-country hero, enough so that she’s among the top-billed acts on this year’s Outlaw Country Cruise, which departs Tampa on Jan. 27, the day after her 66th birthday. The day the cruise gets back, she’ll play a sold-out show with the Drive-By Truckers at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg.

Before the cruise, Williams talked about her evolving fan base, her perfectionist tendencies, her landmark 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and more.

Since I’ve been covering music, I’ve asked different people about the best show they’ve ever seen in Tampa Bay. More than one person has said Lucinda Williams at Jannus Landing.

I do remember playing there. I remember playing there for Car Wheels or one of those (tours). It’s outside, it’s really pretty and it’s peaceful feeling. That was back in the ‘90s, the first show I played there.

What do you remember about your tours back then? Coming off the high of Car Wheels, did you feel any different as a performer?

That was when I first started realizing that — well, I probably felt a little bit of this when the (1988) self-titled album came out. Car Wheels was a breakthrough on another level, but the self-titled album was a breakthrough in terms of recognition. All of a sudden, everybody went, Wow, who’s this? I remember, over time, what a big deal that was for me, realizing that people were coming to the shows because they knew who I was, they wanted to hear me, they had my albums and they were familiar with some of the songs. That’s a big deal, versus the struggling years.

The other thing I remember back in the ‘90s was people bringing their little kids. I was in my 40s, and they would be in their 30s and 40s, and they would bring their little kids, 3 and 4 years old, to the shows. Twenty years later, their kids are coming to my shows now, coming up and saying, “Hey, my dad brought me to see you when I was 4 years old.” It’s a cool, multigenerational thing.

Did you see more of that when you did the Car Wheels 20th anniversary tour last fall?

Yeah. When I first started playing, it was all people my age, who grew up with ‘60s music. Now it’s a pretty mixed bag. Except I’d love it if I had more people of color in the audience. I don’t know when or if that will happen.

That’s probably not something a performer can control, right?

It’s something nobody really talks about. A lot of that just has to do with that whole world of marketing and radio and stuff. I don’t know. I guess it’s just the style of music I do.

Are you surprised, or more gratified, when you meet a fan who’s African-American or Latin?

I’m not surprised. But it warms my heart when I look out and I see an African-American person in the audience. It’s like, Wow, this is great, my music’s appealing to different cultures, different people.

There are people who might call Car Wheels on a Gravel Road a perfect album. When you listen to it, are there things you would change?

Well, you know, probably, yeah. I don’t know what artist doesn’t feel like that. I always try to remember what (producer) Steve Earle told me when we were in the studio. I like to be able to go in and try different things — if I want to do this vocal over, or this vocal over. Steve was like, Boom-boom, let’s get it done, I’m busy, I’ve got things to do. I remember one day I was fretting over something. Finally, Steve goes, “Lu, this is just a record. It’s going to be different later. It was different before. This is capturing a moment in time. Just let it go.” The way my mind works is, “Well, yeah, but it’s permanent, and once it’s done, I can’t ever change it again!” (laughs) Over time, I’ve relaxed more.

There’s also the school of thought that once you write and release a song, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. Whoever hears it hears what they hear.

They hear what they hear. I remember when we got the masters, and I just cringed every time I heard I Lost It, because I hated my vocal.

Oh. Hmm.

(laughs) See? I know! And it ended up being some people’s favorite track! That’s part of the whole thing of recording, is you’ve got to get out of your own way. You hear about these artists who go into the studio and it takes them forever to finish everything because they get so anal about it.

The ability to let go, that’s a desirable skill.

There’s a fine line between getting it right, wanting it to be good and driving yourself crazy.

IF YOU GO

Lucinda Williams and the Drive-By Truckers

With Erika Wennerstrom. 6:30 p.m. Feb. 1, Jannus Live, 200 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Sold out. (727) 565-0550. jannuslive.com.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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