Despite being a primarily country artist, her inclusion here on Classic Rock History is very much deserved. Much like many classic country acts, Williams’ music has transcended specific genre calculation and has dabbled heavily in rock influence. In fact, some of rock’s biggest names have adapted her songs.
Top 10 Lucinda Williams Songs
# 10 – ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’ (Amnesty International’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’ / 2012)
Typically, one wouldn’t consider putting a cover into the top ten tracks of an artist’s catalog. There are very special instances, however, when an artist covers a song so poignantly, so magnificently well, that they outshine the original rendition, thus making it their own. Williams did that several years ago with Bob Dylan’s ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven.’ The original ‘Time out of Mind’ track is superb, but Williams elevated it to new heights with her emotion and passionate delivery. It easily stands amongst her finest recordings ever.
# 9 – ‘Unsuffer Me’ (‘West’ / 2007)
Speaking of Bob Dylan, Williams has been compared to the folk legend many times. They both released a debut album of traditional covers, went in similar directions, have an eclectic catalog, and ultimately produced some of their best work in their later years. ‘West,’ Williams’ moody 2007 album, is a terrific effort. ‘Unsuffer Me’ is one of the most sensational tracks on it. This dark rock and roller is doused in reverb and atmosphere, highlighting Williams perfectly in her element.
# 8 -‘Changed The Locks’ (‘Lucinda Williams’ / 1988)
Lucinda Williams’ eponymous junior studio album, released in 1988, is arguably one of her most underappreciated, but spectacularly good albums. Released on Koch Records at the time, which is now a different label entirely, you can’t even stream it like the rest of her catalog nowadays. If you can get ahold of it, however, it’s worth spending time with.
‘Change The Locks’ is one of the tracks from that record. At this point in time, Williams’ music was in the middle of an identity crisis. Was it rock? Was it country? It was a bit too much of either for a label to sign her for one or the other. ‘Change The Locks’ straddles that line, but ultimately falls into rock and roll, hence why Tom Petty later covered it. The definitive version of the song, however, is not the original studio take. Rather, 2005’s ‘Live At The Fillmore’ is. The intensity of that recording is unparalleled.
# 7 – ‘Drunken Angel’ (‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ / 1998)
Prior to Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, Williams’ was a bit of a niche act. In 1998, the album skyrocketed her into the public eye. She’s never really since produced a record that commercially viable or successful, either. It was lauded for good reason, though. It’s a fine album that returns to Williams’ folksy roots after several years of rock-oriented writing. ‘Drunken Angel’ is a fantastic song. The track recounts a confusing murder gone awry that involved an acquaintance of Williams.’ If you really want to dig into it, American Songwriter has a great write-up of the track’s history.
# 6 – ‘Can’t Let Go’ (‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ / 1998)
If you’ve ever frequented open mic nights in your life, you’ve most certainly heard this song. ‘Can’t Let Go’ is a favorite cover in most acoustic circles. To be blunt, it’s probably because it’s the most recognizable song Williams has ever written. Even in her most commercialist endeavor, however, Williams remained wonderfully pure in her art. It’s not just infectiously catchy and memorable, it’s a sharply produced jaunt through country rock with slick lyricism.
# 5 – ‘Death Came’ (‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’ / 2016)
Just a few weeks ago, Lucinda Williams released one of the greatest albums of her career, The Ghosts of Highway 20.‘ She’s currently on tour as of this publication in support of it. It’s valid to say it might be her most exceptional work since her 1998 breakthrough. The songs are impeccably written and Williams is in fine form. ‘Death Came,’ a melancholy electric-folk track, is a resounding high point on the album. It’s a breathtaking song, one that exposes a vulnerable side of Williams that’s often shrouded by her hardened nature.
# 4 – ‘Jackson’ (‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ / 1998)
The finale of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is perfect. ‘Jackson’ isn’t a Johnny Cash, cover. No, it’s an original track that sounds like its straight out of the South circa 1930. If the Carter Family was around in 1998, they would have wanted to cover this song. It’s an elegant portrayal of Williams’ chameleonic ability to harness just about any genre or style.
# 3- ‘Sharp Cutting Wings (Song to a Poet)’ (‘Happy Woman Blues’ / 1980)
After her 1979 debut, ‘Ramblin,’ which consisted of traditional covers, Williams released ‘Happy Woman Blues.’ The 1980 Folkways album is very folksy, harnessing the singer songwriter era half a decade after its heyday. ‘Happy Woman Blues’ probably wasn’t the right record for 1980. 1973? Sure. It didn’t help that Folkways was and is by nature, a record label with a very specific focus, too. Needless to say, the album is often overlooked when analyzing Williams’ catalog.
‘Sharp Cutting Wings (Song to a Poet)’ is Lucinda Williams’ ‘Boots of Spanish Leather.’ It’s a lovely acoustic track about flying away to a foreign country or sailing far away at sea. It’s almost unrecognizable when compared to Lucinda Williams’ popular music or public persona. Perhaps that is what is so great about the song. It’s an insight into talent as it developed through its innocence. It’s a beautiful tune.
# 2 – ‘Ghosts of Highway 20’ (‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’ / 2016)
The title track of Williams’ new album is a seven minute epic that will be a defining, legendary moment of her catalog fifty years from now. Contextually, it’s sort of like Williams’ own version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Ghost of Tom Joad.’ The track is an exploration of Americana in the most compelling way possible. “Farms, truck stops, and firework stands… I know this road like the back of my hand,” Williams croons over one of the best orchestrations in her catalog. At sixty-three, Williams has concreted her place in American music history even further with this song.
# 1- ‘Side of the Road’ (‘Lucinda Williams’ / 1988)
‘Side of the Road’ is quintessentially Lucinda Williams. It isn’t necessarily a country track, but it isn’t rock, either. (It may be rockabilly, but that classification of her music isn’t too apt, really.) Its lyricism is on par with some of the finest songwriters of the century. Her delivery is timeless. The track is one of independence, which Lucinda Williams has personified for over thirty years. ‘Side of the Road’ is a classic. It’s also a very relatable song, discussing the idea of having a personal life outside of a relationship that doesn’t alienate or nullify that relationship but is necessary. It’s certainly an important part of any good bond that isn’t addressed in many songs. Williams does so remarkably well.
Top 10 Lucinda Williams Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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