Lucinda Williams and All the Forgettable Epiphanies

Tuesday was the Feast of the Epiphany, the day in which we celebrate the Christ […]

Ethan Richardson / 1.8.15

Tuesday was the Feast of the Epiphany, the day in which we celebrate the Christ child revealed to the Magi, the rulers of the East, the Word of God made plain to the Gentiles. It brings to a close the twelve days of Christmas, and what a way to do it–with the showcasing of God’s Son to the whole pagan world, not just the choicest cuts.

And what was Lucinda Williams doing? Besides preparing for a short tour along the Gulf of Mexico, she was mourning the death of her father, Miller Williams, the acclaimed poet whose lyrics actually open the album Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (“Compassion,” just below). He died on New Years Day.


But also in time for the Epiphany came this Pitchfork article about Lucinda Williams (what?!)–her new record and all the older ones–entitled, “Old, But Not in a New Way: Why Lucinda Williams Became One of the Year’s Most Overlooked Artists.” The writer, Grayson Haver Currin, notes how little fanfare the two-disc record received, despite Williams’ indisputable reputation as one of our greatest living American singer-songwriters. And, on Pitchfork of all places, Currin notes that it’s not the alt-country schtick that’s lost favor (ht GP):

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone’s material wasn’t an outlier in 2014, some wonderful and overlooked alt-country record in a year where no one gave a damn about that kind of stuff. Several exceptional Americana records emerged during the last 12 months, many crossing over into wider audiences and earning their makers spots on late-night television and in major magazines. Only by example, see Sturgill Simpson and Hiss Golden Messenger, Jason Isbell and the married pair of Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn.

…But Williams seems to face another hurdle now, and I don’t sense that she’s alone in her predicament: During the last 17 years, she’s released seven fine-to-incredible albums, with gaps of one-to-four years separating each of them. At last, her combination of age and consistency has caught up with her, enabled by our obsessive ability to track what’s new and seemingly important at the expense of what’s familiar though no less powerful. When we’re all trying to keep up with the best new Ableton users on Soundcloud or hunt for the best lo-fi uploads to Bandcamp, who has the time and attention to sit down with a 20-song set from a 61-year-old songwriter and parse just how thoughtful and articulate it is? I didn’t. She’ll likely release another record not long after we have a new president, anyway.

This isn’t mere information overload, where folks are flooded with so many sources of online sound that they never give anything a proper spin. That’s been documented and, I think, overblown elsewhere; if you’re not paying attention to what you’re hearing, it’s not the fault of your personalized online A&R service. Instead, Spirit and many records like it seem to go unnoticed because, in that new church of overwhelming data and choices, we’re looking to latch onto a narrative hook or the simple feeling of newness that we can share. The appeal of something you’ve never heard (and especially something you suspect very few others have heard) dovetails perfectly with our new sharing infrastructure: This is mine, and by showing it to you, I’ve upped the level of my imprimatur.


Kudos to Pitchfork for publishing something with such self-indictment. They didn’t even review Lucinda’s album! Currin describes the fanfare that a similarly-aged and similarly-weathered Doug Seegers received this year. Seegers, who was “discovered” singing in a food pantry in Nashville by a talent scout, received the A&R attention of a big act, precisely because this guy was a discovery. His record sold off the charts. You could say the same about soul-singer and former dishwasher Charles Bradley two years ago. But Lucinda is not a discovery. She is an old story. And to appreciate her gravelly, low-moan Delta appeal is to yawn and say the sky is blue. The sky is blue, but who cares?

“You’ll never find another Lucinda,” Spin wrote back in 1998, when they called Car Wheels a feat. Why, then, does it feel like we’re looking for one, especially when she’s just offered us 20 songs that we kind of ignored?

I hope you see the Epiphany connection. In an age when new choices and big data offer the consumer an innumerable array of ways to identify themselves to the world, to be taste-makers, the old characters either get gussied up in new (false) narratives, or they fade back into obscurity. These characters are still there, but we don’t pay them any mind. We know the story of the star over a manger, yes, but we watch for a newer one.