Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Lucinda Williams, the album, was the game changer for Lucinda Williams, the artist, even if few knew or realized it at the time. Sneaking out on Rough Trade records, home of the Smiths, it started a slow burn of releases, initially only by drip feed, speeding up over the ensuing decades to a now near insatiable speed.
Williams’ debut, 1979’s Ramblin’ On My Mind, was an overly polite album of blues covers and country staples. Next was Happy Woman Blues, a first stab at her own material, in 1980. Now, with her self-titled third record, she was finally paired with a band, and the combination of the developing rawness of her vocals, allied to some country-folkie-blues, was a hit more with critics than the public, a fate she was to endure for some time yet.
Her first record with her then also band member, Gurf Morlix, on production duties, he gives a clarity to her only just beginning to fray vocal style, allowing a distance between that and the other instruments, which are largely fairly rough hewn, if competent, bar band country rock fare, guitars, bass and drums, with additional sounds joining in where needed, a bit of fiddle, some accordion and occasional keyboards and harmonica. Certainly less grainy than the denser mix of later records, I think that distance was important to her then burgeoning recognition,
So, this eponymous album, how did it fare? Well, even getting it released was a struggle. “Too country,” said rock’n’roll, “Too rock’n’roll,” said country. It took UK record mogul Geoff Downes to give her a punt, signing her in 1987 when all the US labels had turned her down. But on Lucinda Williams‘ release, in 1988, they loved it. A full decade later, when Lucinda fully broke through with 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, all clamored to apply glowing retrospective praise to Lucinda Williams, belatedly applying it classic status and helping to send its re-release to sales of 100,000. They weren’t wrong, of course, just late to the party. As excellent as her subsequent work has been and remains, many of us find Lucinda Williams is still the one to play, tapping in for core Lucinda.
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – I Just Wanted to See You So Bad (Lucinda Williams cover)
If, as a jobbing songsmith, you were seeking a vote of credibility, having one of your songs picked up by Emmylou Harris is surely one big step on the way. Actually one of two songs Emmylou has covered from this record alone, having also covered several more from elsewhere, “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” comes from the second of her two joint projects with Rodney Crowell, although those with a longer memory will recall he first found fame as a member of her famed Hot Band. With a slower take, a lower key, and the loss of the swirly organ riff, this is perhaps more a vehicle for Crowell, although the pair are in harmony throughout. It evokes a slightly wearier need than Lucinda’s angstier take, which is a contrast that breathes a new life into the song. Chums since both living in Nashville in the ’90s, Harris and Williams have a mutual respect and have often also performed together.
Patty Loveless – The Night’s Too Long (Lucinda Williams cover)
One of the issues around covering Lucinda is that there usually aren’t so many quirky renditions by fringe artists. She tends more to attract a procession of her peers, country royalty always on the snarf for quality material. Patty Loveless is one such peer, who can count on both Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle as bona fide blood relatives, and who has had a four-decade career, breaking at much the same time as Williams. For someone on the more rhinestoned end of the spectrum, a song like “The Night’s Too Long” is an opportunity to grab a bit more grit to your image. Loveless, it’s true, pretties and polishes it up a bit, but still leaves enough grain to offer an attractive taster to her other more commercially bent material.
The Lemonheads – Abandoned (Lucinda Williams cover)
Evan Dando is another longterm Lu lover; YouTube offers oodles of evidence to that end, and many a live performance, band or solo, will be littered with one of her songs. Perhaps as his own muse has wilted, it is more to covers projects he has strayed, and Varshons 2 (reviewed here) was his last recording. Whilst Dando has said he feels the Morlix production of the original “Abandoned” was too 1980s, I am not sure I can hear that; his own version seems more redolent of that era, blanding it out a little more than necessary. I mean, sure, it’s great until you go and play the source material again. Having said that, with a voice like his, I can defend his right to sing whatever and however he damn well pleases.
Mollie O’Brien – Big Red Sun Blues (Lucinda Williams cover)
If you don’t know Mollie O’Brien, maybe you’ve heard of her younger brother Tim, an accomplished bluegrass player on any stringed instrument you could name, with a pleasing voice and enough crossover nous to have made a name outside of his genre. Mollie has had a career of her own, as well as often working with her kid brother, and has had an always more eclectic taste, encompassing jazz and Broadway, where she had originally sought to carve a name for herself. But you’ll mainly find her filed under Country, applying mountain music hues to songs both expected and often otherwise. “Big Red Sun Blues” is the title track from her 1998 album, which adds a borderline sepia tint to one of the simpler songs here, the accordion especially affecting, and her pure voice brimming with what Rolling Stone calls “roots without whine.”
Daisy Tugwell – Like a Rose (Lucinda Williams cover)
At last, an opportunity to debut a new name and offer a fresh face. I am here limited by ignorance, unfortunately, about the sweet voiced Daisy Tugwell, there seeming to be very little information out there about her. She has a Bandcamp page, suggesting she is a Brit who washed up in Chicago, making a 2013 album there, accompanying herself largely on (yikes) ukelele, which thankfully doesn’t exert that much presence here. The sheer unadorned beauty of her take on “Like a Rose” is a delight, once the extraneous background noise at the intro abates, and it strips the song even further back from Williams’ own fairly stark rendition. It is a highlight of Tugwell’s record, Farrago.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Change the Locks (Lucinda Williams cover)
If I’m honest, I’m not so keen on “Changed the Locks”‘ strident bleat and its bellowing, however worthy the wail. So how can Tom Petty redeem it, while still applying the same concept of it being a riposte to an abusive partner? The answer: not really at all, other than to add his trademark swagger, the Heartbreakers (irony alert) cranking one up in the background. An eagle eye will spot the slight change in the song title from Changed to Change, for a moment suggesting it now possibly instructional, but that seems an incorrect fancy, if still interesting an idea. Glad he had a go, I guess. Better by far is Lucinda’s return of the compliment, in her posthumous live-in-the-studio tribute to Tom, last year’s Runnin’ Down a Dream.
Shakey Graves – Passionate Kisses (Lucinda Williams cover)
Nope, this is a Mary Chapin-Carpenter-free zone here. However good Mary C C’s “Passionate Kisses” was and is, however much her version gave Williams’ reputation a good hefty lift, you won’t find her here. Honestly, I like her version, but most of the other covers available are covers of that cover, from the (inspired) speeding up piano arrangement onward. So it takes this strangely named country noir gothic busker to kick in some new personality. A plinky plonky picked guitar intro ushers in a mournful and somewhat ragged lament. Given the singer Alejandro Rose-Garcia took the name Shakey Graves in homage to potential Native American names he could take, if anything his singing offers a reminder of Leon Redbone, another artist oft thought (wrongly) to have been of Native American origin. The lowest fi offering here, it may also be the best.
Tres Chicas – Am I Too Blue (Lucinda Williams cover)
Tres Chicas are the “supergroup” trio of Lynn Blakey, Tonya Lamm, and Caitlin Cary, one of Ryan Adams’ erstwhile musical foils in Whiskeytown. “Am I Too Blue” is a track on their first collaboration, Sweetwater, produced by no less than erstwhile dB Chris Stamey. If few musical milestones are made, it remains a well-crafted collection of country acoustica, with this particular song, slowed a little from the original, offering a Tex-Mex slant. The backing, by the way, is provided for this track by Chatham Country Line. Remaining a waltz, it sways just that little bit looser, and when the harmonies lock in behind Blakey’s lead vocal, the answer to the song title is guaranteed.
The Continental Drifters – Crescent City (Lucinda Williams cover)
For a change, here’s a song that’s slightly brisker than the original, stemming from a live show by the assorted wayward souls who became the Continental Drifters, that decade long conglomeration of disparate musicians, with pasts as varied as Dream Syndicate, the Bangles and the dBs. Oh, and Susan Cowsill from her eponymous family band. From their retrospective compilation album, Drifted, the second disc is a rag bag of covers and live material and, frankly, is more fun than their rather more sober-sided originals. Cowsill and ex-Bangle Vicki Peterson trade none too smooth vocals and make a night in Crescent City seem somewhat enticing. Peter Holsapple, ex-dBs and R.E.M. sideman, marshals the backing musicians with as little tightness the song can get away with. “Everybody’s had a few,” goes the opening lyric; that much seems apparent.
Annie & the Hedonists – Side of the Road (Lucinda Williams cover)
The Hedonists are a whole lot more fun than they first might look, specializing in the vintage jazz, blues, and swing of a between-wars USA. “Side of the Road,” often cited as Williams’ best song, might seem odd territory to shoehorn into their usual choices. But the simple fact is that any song, if strong enough, can transcend near any genre. This is no huge overall transformation, the heavy lifting firmly on the shoulders of Annie Rosen, whose strong and confident voice shines over the interplay of guitars and stand-up bass. What the song loses from the more familiar arrangement, it makes up for by the unequivocal majesty of the melody.
Prairie Oyster – Price to Pay (Lucinda Williams cover)
The closest thing to unbridled “& western” in the selection so far, Prairie Oyster takes “Price to Pay,” the set’s most traditional country song, closer than Lu has ever got to the Grand Ole Opry herself. (Editor’s note: she actually performed there last month, singing “Jesus Just Left Chicago” at a Billy Gibbons tribute.) However, as is strangely so often the case, this hunk of hickory smoked hat act actually stems from Canada. At one time they were perpetually the Canadian CMA act of the year, plucking up Juno awards right, left and center. Megastars north of the border, nobodies south, which seems harsh. It’s OK, a not unpleasant Yoakam-like yodel perpetually stuck in the larynx of singer Russell DeCarle.
James “Blood” Ulmer – I Asked for Water (Howlin’ Wolf cover)
“I Asked for Water,” Lucinda Williams‘ only non-original, closes side two, and, much as I can’t abide side one’s closer “Changed the Locks,” this ought similarly to stick in my craw. Somehow it doesn’t. Not so much, anyway, even if it isn’t a patch on Howlin’ Wolf. James “Blood” Ulmer touches the blunt city blues of Wolf with an alchemist’s stone, maintaining the sharecropper vocal, but now providing a muddy, swirly swamp of keyboards, harmonica and flailing guitars somewhere beneath it, a thick broth for his existential wail to float upon. He makes it a song you could awake in surprise to, uncertain if it had been playing for weeks or minutes. Ulmer was the first electric guitarist to work with Ornette Coleman, free-form jazz as much part of his palette as blues and Hendrix-inspired guitar play.