In a rare joint performance at the Poetry Center of Chicago in 2004, poet Miller Williams and his daughter, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, traded poem for song in what Lucinda described in an pre-concert interview as "a songwriters’ in-the-round-show." While both Williamses have seen their stars rise over the past few years, the two have been working their trades, and trading their works, for decades.
Miller Williams is perhaps most famous, beyond poetry circles, for delivering the poem at President Clinton's second inauguration. Recently retired from teaching at the University of Arkansas, Williams has published, edited, and translated over thirty books. His early stints at universities across the South compose part of the growing legend of his daughter’s career, as do his friendships with the likes of Flannery O’Connor, James Dickey, Charles Bukowski, and country singer George Jones. The itinerant but always lively childhood of Lucinda Williams meant exposure to writers, musicians, and a different town every couple of years, until the Williamses finally settled in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Though poetry was always somewhere in the background, music was her first love.
Lucinda Williams traces her defining musical moment back to a night when she was twelve, when one of her father’s students dropped by and put on Bob Dylan’s newest album, Highway 61 Revisited. For Williams, the album proved enormously influential, wedding the literary and musical impulses so abundant in her home. "He was the first artist who actually managed to incorporate both of the worlds I came out of, which was the more traditional folk music of America and the poetic, literary world. That's when I decided what I wanted to achieve."
During her early adulthood, Williams was steeped in a world of creative expression between her mother, a concert pianist, and her father's literary crowd. "There were always a lot of other poets at the house,'' she recalled. "We'd have writers over and sit around and have drinks. My dad would often read a new poem that he'd just written, and I would sing some songs. That was a fairly regular thing. I got feedback, which is of utmost importance when you're learning. I had this immediate, intelligent audience. Plus, I spent a lot of time sitting around just listening, observing, and absorbing things through a kind of osmosis."
Williams’s lyrics are dense with artifacts of a southern landscape and informed by a poet’s sense of economy and subtlety. Her songs whisper along the burned-out edges of broken relationships and tragic loss, much of the material mined from Williams’s own life story. As her father explains, "My poetry and her songs--you could say they both have dirt under the fingernails. In my writing, I try to get down to the nuts and bolts of living, and there’s no question that Lucinda does that, too. Her music is not abstract. There’s real sweat in every song."
In the song "Pineola," for example, news of a family friend’s suicide plays out in plaintive, understated lines, fitting for a piece about the death of poet Frank Stanford, who was a staple in the Williams household in the 1970s. Notice the detail in these last lines describing the large crowd at the funeral, much to Stanford’s mother’s surprise, as if revealing the hidden life of a clearly popular and mysterious person.
we drove on out to the country, his friends all stood around
Subiaco Cemetery is where we lay him down
I saw his mama, she was standing there and his sister she was there too
I saw them look at us standing around the grave and not a soul they knew
In 1979, Lucinda Williams recorded her first album, Ramblin’ on My Mind, a collection of country and blues covers. A year later she released Happy Woman Blues, all original songs, though neither album received much attention. It wasn’t until the release of her 1988 eponymous album that Lucinda started to receive notice. Though the album had but a brief radio life, cultivating a small but devoted fan base, it was Tom Petty’s interest in the song "Changed the Locks" that helped Williams’s career (Petty later covered the song).
Though she’s considered a slow worker in the fast-churning music business, Williams has quietly developed one of the finest reputations in the songwriting industry. Another song on the Lucinda Williams album, "Passionate Kisses," was covered by country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter four years later and won Williams a Grammy Award for Best Country Song. But consistent big-label support has been fleeting, as have the kind of breakout sales an artist needs to garner big-label support. As country star Emmylou Harris has said of Williams, "She is an example of the best of what country at least says it is. But, for some reason, she’s completely out of the loop. And I feel strongly that that’s country music’s loss."
Part of the difficulty Williams has had accessing a wider audience is the difficulty in pinning her music to any one tradition. Though she comes from southern country roots, her music weaves a wide range of musical traditions, from folk to rock 'n’ roll. She’s won three Grammy Awards in three different categories: Best Country Song, Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Best Female Rock Performance.
Whatever shape and direction Williams’ career takes in the future, it’s clear the songs will continue to come. As she has said, writing is "what makes me move up and move on. Because I have to write. I can’t deal with not writing. I’ve got to have that. I have to have that edge, that thing, or whatever it is that pushes me into that creative place." In an article she wrote for the New York Times addressing the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Williams posed the question to Dylan, her great influence: "Are you a poet or a songwriter? Who cares?" She could have been talking about herself.
Throughout her career, Williams has always had her father’s ear as a sounding board for her latest works-in-progress, offering critique and suggestions. "He’s my toughest critic besides myself," she has said, adding that "he’s always been sort of my mentor, you know. It’s like a teacher/student type of a thing." When she consulted him on her latest album, World Without Tears, her father responded without a single change, saying her new lyrics were the closest she had come to poetry, to which she replied, "Wow, does that mean I've graduated?'"