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Rough Trade Talk with Lucinda Williams

Onetime Austinite reflects on her milestone recording
Margaret Moser, 4:20pm, Fri. Sep. 13, 2013

Conversation with Lucinda Williams before an Austin show always brims with nostalgia. That’s even more relevant to the former local’s current tour, on which she performs her third release, 1988’s Rough Trade LP Lucinda Williams, in its entirety on Saturday at Stubb’s.

The Louisiana-born singer spent an accountable portion of her early career in Austin developing her poetic stylings into songs. Her mojo with words stems from this deep South background, fed by muddy Delta blues, rural country, and the politics of folk music – with a healthy desire to crank it up to 11.

Williams, who doggedly played the Alamo Lounge and Emmajoe’s in the rising company of Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Blaze Foley, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock, learned all her lessons well. Songs for the Rough Trade album were mostly written and recorded about after she moved to Los Angeles in the late Eighties, where Mary Chapin Carpenter’s version of the exuberant “Passionate Kisses” won Williams a Grammy and Tom Petty famously covered “Changed the Locks.”

Lu called from the tour bus on the way to Dallas, whose show precedes Stubb’s. This tour, she explains, is different.

“I’m telling the stories of these songs, like ‘The Night’s Too Long.’ Patty Loveless bravely chose to record that song, but her producer Tony Brown told me their label wouldn’t push it. Lines like, ‘I’m gonna find me a guy in a leather jacket who likes his living rough,’ they didn’t like. And, ‘His shirt’s all soaked with sweat.’

“She also wanted to do ‘Something About What Happens When We Talk’ [from 1993’s Sweet Old World]. But it had that line, ‘All I regret is I never kissed your mouth,’ and the label didn’t go for it. Leather jacket, rough, sweat....”

Williams laughs.

“I was singing on a Robbie Fulks album while in Nashville, and I told him how much I like his song. The lyrics were really erotic, and when I told him what Tony said, Robbie said, ‘Yeah, people have a problem with body parts in Nashville. Then, when I sing the song, people respond to those lines.’

“The thing that struck me is, these songs have stood the test of time. I have to remind myself it was 25 years ago. It forces me to get into every single song on the album, whereas I’d usually do one or two or three – ‘Change the Locks,’ ‘Side of the Road,’ or ‘Crescent City.’ Occasionally ‘I Just Wanna See You So Bad,’ or ‘The Night’s Too Long.’

“We recently remastered it from the tapes, not the digital copy. You have to bake the tapes because they’re so delicate. You want it to sound like the original, not too slick. I hope people will listen and hear things they haven’t before, because that’s what remastering should do. I learned a lot from it. It’s gorgeous.

“Doing the songs, they sound really fresh. I realized how many love songs I was writing then, because that’s the age I was. ‘Big Red Sun Blues’ and ‘Price to Pay.’ And ‘Changed the Locks.’

“The other thing that struck me was how I was inspired by Doug Sahm and the Tex-Mex thing. ‘Abandoned’ and ‘Big Red Sun’ have that Sir Doug vibe. I don’t know if it was all the years I lived in Texas in particular, but I’m still a huge fan of Doug Sahm’s music. Maybe it was the combination of Texas, Tex-Mex food, and Tex-Mex culture that I brought with me to California.

“The oldest one was one I wrote in Houston in 1980, ‘I Just Wanna See You So Bad.’ The rest were written when I first moved out to L.A., late 1984 or ’85. So this was me looking back, nostalgia. When I was in L.A., I was thinking about New Orleans when I wrote ‘Crescent City.’

“Stuart Mathis from the Wallflowers is on guitar on this tour, knocking it out of the park, along with my regulars David Sutton on bass and Butch Norton on drums. I’ve got my bases covered! After I do the Rough Trade songs, they go offstage and I do a song by myself. They come back and we start rocking out on songs like ‘Out of Touch,’ ‘Righteously.’

“It’s interesting to see how I grew stylistically as a writer, and branched out to more of rock thing. [My husband] Tom has been going through the huge collection of cassette tapes I’ve kept over the years. He’s been listening in his man cave office and he’ll come down and say, ‘Did you write a song called “The Jazz Side of Life”? I love that song and want you to record it.’ He’s been dubbing cassettes to CDs and making notes on songs like ‘Venetian Blinds’ and ‘Song for the Jewelry Maker.’

“We’re also looking at outtakes from that Rough Trade period, like the CBS demo. It was pretty much every song that was on the Rough Trade album, and they passed on it. Sony L.A. said it was too country, and Sony Nashville said it was too rock for country. So it literally fell between the cracks. It took a punk label out of England to not care.

“They got hold of the demos, asked me if I wanted to make a record, and the rest is history. This was before Americana and no one knew how to market it. The European labels weren’t concerned with that.

“I’ve been writing, writing, writing, but it’s fun to do this. I fell in love with the record, again.”

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