25 years later, Lucinda Williams and Gurf Morlix look back at breakthrough record

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014 Music

It must have been a discouraging time for Lucinda Williams. The year was 1988, and the budding Americana singer-songwriter was leading a great band that played regularly at Los Angeles hot spots. But the pay for the gigs was paltry, and record deals were a pipe dream. Sony had helped her make a demo but went no further; independent labels such as Rounder, Rhino and Sugar Hill had passed on her as well.

And then the impossible happened. Rough Trade, a British label known for envelope-pushing rock acts such as the Smiths and Cabaret Voltaire, was starting up a U.S. branch — and they wanted to sign her. Williams still vividly remembers the phone call from Rough Trade’s Robin Hurley: “He said, ‘We love your songs, we love your voice. Do you want to make a record?’”

The result, a self-titled LP recorded with her band in June-July 1988 and released a few months later, was a revelation that stands today as one of the finest singer-songwriter albums of its era. Williams celebrates the release of an expanded CD-reissue package with a 5 p.m. in-store performance at Waterloo Records on Tuesday. The long-overdue reissue, on Williams’ own label through the Nashville collective Thirty Tigers, features the original 12-track album on one disc, plus a second disc that includes six bonus tracks (mostly outtakes from the original record) and a 14-song recording of a live radio broadcast from the Netherlands in 1989.

Although it wasn’t Williams’ debut album — the Smithsonian-connected label Folkways had issued a couple of Lucinda records in 1979 and 1980 — the Rough Trade release put Williams on the map as a songwriter. In the decade that followed, nearly all of its 11 original songs (the 12th was a Howlin’ Wolf cover) were recorded by artists both massive (Tom Petty) and obscure (the Schramms). Patty Loveless hit the country top 20 with one of them. Kasey Chambers, still in her teens, used one to help launch her career. Mary Chapin Carpenter scored biggest, winning Williams a Grammy for Best Country Song with her smash-hit single of “Passionate Kisses.”

“That really was the turning point, looking back,” Williams says of the album. “Because this was the one where the critics all discovered me. And it wasn’t expected, because nobody knew who I was before that, except everybody in Austin and Houston.”

Those fortunate Austinites and Houstonians had gotten to know Williams during her years here from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s. She lived in Houston amid the late-’70s heyday of songwriter-friendly venues such as Anderson Fair and Prufrock’s, with extended stretches in Austin both before and after. She returned to Austin for about a year in the early ’90s before moving to Nashville; in 2002, she returned to Los Angeles, back where her career first took off a quarter-century ago with this record.

As it turns out, Rough Trade’s offer arrived just in time. Veteran Austin musician Gurf Morlix, who co-produced the album with Williams, had been playing guitar with her for a few years but was on the verge of leaving her band when the deal came in.

“We were playing these gigs at Raji’s (in Hollywood), and we were making like eight dollars, for the band,” Morlix says. “I remember that one night, I left or she left, and I didn’t get my two dollars. And I was trying to figure out a way to quit — nicely, you know; I didn’t want to just quit, but it wasn’t going anywhere. The music was great, but we weren’t getting anywhere.

“I was mulling it over in my head — how can I tell her I don’t want to do this anymore, that it’s taking up too much of my time. And she called up one day and she said, ‘We got offered a record deal, by this guy Robin Hurley from Rough Trade.’”

Amazingly, Hurley, who contributed liner notes to the reissue package (along with Los Angeles music journalist Chris Morris), had never actually seen Williams perform. “Looking back, it does seem odd that we signed Lucinda without seeing her live,” he said via email. “But Geoff (Travis, Rough Trade’s founder) and I were so enamored with the songs and her voice that we wanted to move ahead quickly. We didn’t want to lose her!”

Such a notion probably would’ve seemed farcical to Williams back then. “I didn’t have any other options at the time,” she recalls with a laugh. “I couldn’t get a record deal for anything. Nobody knew what to do with me, because it fell in the cracks between country and rock. I’ve told that story a whole lot, but it’s true. That was the story of my life back then.”

The ill-fated Sony development deal was a textbook example. “They paid for me to make a demo of my songs, which were basically all the same songs that ended up on the Rough Trade album,” she says. “But Sony in L.A. passed on it because they said it was too country for rock. And they sent it to Sony in Nashville, who passed on it because they said it was too rock for country.”

Rough Trade heard those songs differently, though they were interested in having Williams record them anew. “Probably the main reason was that I had started working with Gurf Morlix,” Williams remembers. “We had been playing around L.A., with him and Donald Lindley and John Ciambotti — so I had a band.”

The Sony demos had been made with a studio crew and were produced by Henry Lewy (who’d helmed early ’70s records for the likes of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Joan Baez). While that might have produced professional-sounding results — Williams says she and her husband/manager Tom Overby may try to release those recordings at a later date — the vibe was much more dialed in when she and her band began recording in engineer Dusty Wakeman’s Mad Dog Studios.

“I thought it was as good a band as there was anywhere in the world at that point,” Morlix says. He’s not one to toot his own horn excessively, but this clearly remains a point of pride: “That was a great band,” he stresses.

Williams credits her bandmates’ musicianship and cohesion for helping things to run smoothly in the studio. “Basically, that’s why it didn’t take us that long to do it — because we’d been playing around (Los Angeles), doing all those songs. So for the most part, everything was already arranged.”

Morlix’s meticulous notes from those days bear this out. In an interview at his home studio near Lakeway, he pores through little notebooks he’s kept for three decades. “OK, June 16th and 18th, we rehearsed. June 19th, we started,” he recounts, noting that the sessions continued every day through July 3 except for a June 25-26 break. “And then July 7th and 8th; I think that must have been mixing.”

He proceeds for a few more pages. “The CD release show was September 28th, at the Music Machine in L.A. I made 20 dollars. I came to Austin on October 13th, and played the 14th and 15th at the Cactus with Lucinda, just the two of us I’m sure.” (Comparing my own quarter-century-old show logs with Morlix’s notes, I find that I attended the second of those two shows.)

Morlix and Williams are listed as co-producers of the album. It was the first such credit for Morlix, who has since gone on to produce records for an impressive list of Texas songwriters including Robert Earl Keen Jr., Ray Wylie Hubbard, Butch Hancock and Slaid Cleaves.

On that 1988 album, he says, he and Williams were simply seeking to make something that wouldn’t be easily identified as belonging to a particular era. That the album has stood the test of time suggests they hit the mark square-on.

“We couldn’t foresee how it would be perceived,” he qualifies. “But, you know, I really loved Jackson Browne’s (mid-’70s albums) ‘For Everyman’ and ‘Late for the Sky.’ I wore those records out. So that’s what I wanted to do — I wanted to make those records. I wanted to make something that was that good. And so, in that sense, we kind of did accomplish that. It had that same effect on a lot of people.”

Revisiting the record today can be emotional, Williams says, given that drummer Donald Lindley and bassist John Ciambotti are no longer around. Lindley passed away in Austin from lung cancer in 1999; Ciambotti died in Los Angeles from an aneurysm following surgery in 2010. Other good friends from the record’s era are also gone, including Chris Gaffney, who played accordion on several tracks, and Duane Jarvis, who often filled in for Ciambotti on the road.

“It’s bittersweet now, going back and remembering and all, because so many people have passed on. It gets really sad. We had a friend of ours come over to the house to film us talking about the album to post on my fan page, and it was really hard. It was like, there’s nobody left.”

Morlix is still here, but he and Williams haven’t talked in nearly two decades, since a falling-out during the protracted sessions for Williams’ 1998 disc “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (a Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Folk Album). He says he has no plans to attend Tuesday’s record-release event at Waterloo.

“I think that water has passed under the bridge,” he says. “I took the high road for all of this time, and it’s not in my interest to badmouth anybody. I will say that it got to the point where it wasn’t worth it, no matter how good the music was. … I just decided that my life was better without her in it. And it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Williams’ career marched on with great success in the meantime. She won another Grammy in 2002 for Best Female Rock Vocal on the song “Get Right With God” — “for a song that’s anything but a rock song,” she muses. “It’s like a Delta gospel blues Southern gothic weirdness song.” Albums in 2004, 2010 and 2012 netted Grammy nominations.

Later this year, Williams plans to release not only a two-disc set of what she describes as “country soul” music, but also a record of more “mellow, moody” material recorded with jazz/Americana guitar master Bill Frisell. “I think what we want to do is put the double CD out, then put the other one out separately, and then put like a limited-edition box set with all three of them,” she explains.

This past fall, Williams did some shows on tour in which she played the Rough Trade album in its entirety. “It actually felt pretty natural, because we’d been doing so many of the songs (over the years),” Williams said. “And it was fun to be able to do some, such as ‘Like a Rose,’ that I hardly ever do, but I love that song.”

If the rear-view-mirror recollections of making that record remain stained with heartache from the losses, perhaps Morlix’s memory of drummer Lindley’s grit and determination during the sessions might bring back a smile.

“I remember we were cutting that song ‘Changed the Locks,’” he begins, referring to one of Williams’ signature tunes, a blistering, bluesy declaration of defiant triumph. “And we were having a bit of a hard time. We played it three or four or five times, and we weren’t quite nailing it somehow. And it was getting a little contentious between Ciambotti and Donald.

“At one point, Donald got angry. He picked his headphones up and he threw them down, and he goes, ‘All right, here we go!’ And he clicked it off, and played the song, not listening to anybody but himself. He played the whole song, threw his sticks down, came into the control room, and he goes, that’s a (bleepin’) take.

“He was a musician, not just a drummer. He knew the song; he knew how it was supposed to be. It’s a perfect take.”

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