Sunday, November 16, 2014

Non-Generic: Lucinda Williams

Back in Paleo-circuit times (pre-internet: Neo-circuit would be dial-up internet) electronic media by necessity were mass media. There was a fairly small number of broadcast radio and TV stations and…well…that was all.  To be sure, there were niche music radio stations even in the early days: country, classical, jazz, etc. In nearly every market, however, there was a dominant top 40 radio station to which most home, car, and portable radios were tuned at least part of the day. In the NYC area, this for at least two decades was 77 WABC AM. While I appreciate and make use of the massively greater array of media choices available today, there was one peculiar advantage to the more limited options of the Paleo-circuit. The top 40 stations were literally that. There was no division by genre; if the top singles one week were by Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, and Tammy Wynette, those were the singles that aired. Recording artists who appeared on television were the same ones who turned up on the top 40 stations. Here is a play list from 1974:

1. The Way We Were - Barbra Streisand
2. Seasons In the Sun, Terry Jacks
3. Love's Theme, Love Unlimited Orchestra
4. Come and Get Your Love, Redbone
5. Dancing Machine, The Jackson 5
6. The Loco-Motion, Grand Funk Railroad
7. T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia), MFSB
8. The Streak, Ray Stevens
9. Bennie and the Jets, Elton John
10. One Hell of a Woman, Mac Davis
11. Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do), Aretha Franklin
12. Jungle Boogie, Kool and The Gang
13. Midnight At the Oasis, Maria Muldaur
14. You Make Me Feel Brand New, The Stylistics
15. Show and Tell, Al Wilson
16. Spiders and Snakes, Jim Stafford
17. Rock On, David Essex
18. Sunshine On My Shoulders, John Denver
19. Sideshow, Blue Magic
20. Hooked On a Feeling, Blue Swede
21. Billy, Don't Be a Hero, Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods
22. Band On the Run, Paul McCartney and Wings
23. The Most Beautiful Girl, Charlie Rich
24. Time In a Bottle, Jim Croce
25. Annie's Song, John Denver
26. Let Me Be There, Olivia Newton-John
27. Sundown, Gordon Lightfoot
28. (You're) Having My Baby, Paul Anka
29. Rock Me Gently, Andy Kim
30. Boogie Down, Eddie Kendricks
31. You're Sixteen You're Beautiful (And You're Mine), Ringo Starr
32. If You Love Me (Let Me Know), Olivia Newton-John
33. Dark Lady, Cher
34. Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me, Gladys Knight and The Pips
35. Feel Like Makin' Love, Roberta Flack
36. Just Don't Want to Be Lonely, The Main Ingredient
37. Nothing from Nothing, Billy Preston
38. Rock Your Baby, George McCrae
39. Top of the World, The Carpenters
40. The Joker, The Steve Miller Band

Not much consistency there. Accordingly, audiences had more cross-genre exposure than today. We heard a lot of stuff we wouldn’t have chosen to hear if we had programmed the music. Nowadays, of course, we do effectively program our own music, selectively storing and playing our preferred tunes and videos in a multitude of formats. A curious consequence of all these choices is that we tend to be less eclectic. We focus on our preferred brands of music and visual entertainment, while even the old-tech radio and TV stations have grown ever more niche-oriented in order to grab some piece of the fractured audience. (This is also true of opinion and politics, but that is a subject for another blog.)

Some artists are hard to pigeonhole, of course. They fall between the niches. This is certainly true of the blues/rock/country/folk fusion of Lucinda Williams, who is one of the best songwriters working today as she has been for more than 30 years. Her indeterminate style hasn’t stopped her from winning awards and selling recordings, but it does make her less well-known to a broad audience than she would have been years ago. Niche stations are never quite sure that she fits. In ’99 she won a Grammy in a Contemporary Folk category even though that description of her album was more than a little dubious. Paul Rice in a Slant review of Lucinda’s new double-album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone comments, “In other words, should Williams be nominated next year, expect the Grammys to once again have no idea what to do with her.”

I’ll be surprised if the Grammys do not face that head-scratcher because Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is a fine album. At 61, Lucinda has worldly cynicism but without the bitterness of youth. Songwriters in this stage of life (e.g. Joan Jett in last year’s Unvarnished album) often get retrospective and contemplative as mortality grows harder to ignore. The perspective often enriches their work, and it does here. It’s an impressive collection of songs, all delivered in her distinctive gravelly voice. There are dark songs such as Something Wicked This Way Comes, tough songs such as Cold Day in Hell, sad songs such as This Old Heartache, and songs that smell of the bayou (Lucinda is from Lake Charles, LA) such as Stand Right by Each Other. Some are mellow and some rock. A few, such as Walk On, are very close to modern country but not quite there. She doesn't want to go quite there. In a Rolling Stone interview, she was dismissive of modern country and quoted bassist John Ciambotti: "Country music today is like Seventies rock without the cocaine."

If you’re thinking this isn’t really your kind of music, you’re probably right. It isn’t mine either. I’m not sure it is anybody’s. Nevertheless, I’m glad I bought the album anyway.  Both CDs from the pack are currently in my stereo’s CD tray – with the Offspring, Eric Burdon, and Theory of a Deadman, which are odd company. They’re likely to stay there for a while.

West Memphis (from Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone)


  1. That is an eclectic mix of songs from '74, which brings back a lot of memories. Odd that Billy, Don't Be A Hero and Seasons of the Sun, among a few others would be above Paul McCartney. I always wondered who put these list together and perhaps some payola behind them?

    With today's music scene probably doesn't help much for variety in that most radio has fallen into monopolized conglomerates like Clear Channel or I Heart Radio or whatever. A large number of people listen to radio over their cell phones, if you have that capability using Pandora and, etc., I have used them and they can be a pretty good tool, however, with them, you plug in a performer you enjoy and they find other performers similar to them. So you're not experiencing anything new. To be honest though, back in the 70's when a song would come on like say, Terry Jacks, or whoever, that I had no interest in, I'd usually push a button and switch the channel anyway.

    Seems I've always perused magazines and such to search out new music, back in the old days, that was hit and miss, however, these days it's switched to using Amazon, to hear something before buying. That's a great data base for that sort of thing and other media. Heck, you can preread excerpts of books, search opinions, and all sorts of things.

    I agree about modern country, it's pretty close to pop and rock these days. Miranda Lambert is pretty big down here as she grew up around these parts. I don't care for country much, but to each their own. I certainly listen to some outlandish stuff that I don't feel anyone could care about either. That's one of the nice thing about the arts though, there's plenty for any taste. By the way I have a Lucinda Williams CD, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That singer/songwriter genre is one which I enjoy from time to time. I've always enjoyed Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, J.J.Cale, early Jackson Browne, Jame Taylor, etc. Check out Jack Hardy's Coin in the Realm, or his Collected Works '65-95 is excellent. You can hear some on Amazon. He's from NYC, but traveled all over performing when he was alive. I was fortunate to see him play in Dallas, and he gave a great concert. He used to hold songwriting workshops in his home in NYC when he was around. Also check out Robert Earl Keen, Jr.'s No Kinda Dancer--it's a great one filled with all sort of songs--his best probably.

    1. All good songsters to be sure. Thanks for the Keen recommendation.

      The internet definitely makes research and sampling of music easier. I peek at the Rolling Stone lists for Best Albums too. As for homogenization of music in each genre, that's apparently not just our imagination. See the study referenced in a Livescience article: . Apparently this is largely consumer driven. Now that people can call up whatever they like on youtube, most of them call up (and later buy) stuff that sounds just like what they picked the last time. I guess the good news is that the same tech makes also it easy to find something different -- for those who want to do so.