In the seventies Austin was a kind of magical place. I would go down to the drag, open up my guitar case, and play for tips. back then you could make a living doing that.
MY FATHER IS A WRITER and a college professor, so when I was growing up I was exposed to a lot of things other kids weren’t exposed to. Like having James Dickey over to the house. I was only four years old when I met Flannery O’Connor. My dad had gone to her house; he had an appointment to meet with her and he had to take us kids with him. I have a vague recollection of peacocks running around in her yard. She was a very disciplined writer, and she had certain hours in which she wrote. If a guest showed up and she wasn’t finished, she would make him wait. And apparently we showed up and she was still working; my dad remembers her peeking through the blinds and pulling them down until she was finished.
I was interested in music from an early age. My mother played piano; there was always a piano around the house. So I had the best of both worlds, words and music. My parents split up at a certain point, but we were always in the same town. I would go visit my mom, and she would turn me on to people like Joan Baez. My dad was into Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn. He was also into jazz and blues. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bessie Smith. The other great outlet was my dad’s students. They were always turning me on to great music, like Bob Dylan.
I started playing guitar at the height of the folk movement—Woody Guthrie; Peter, Paul and Mary; all the traditional stuff. I began taking guitar lessons, rudimentary stuff so I could accompany myself and sing songs. The first song I remember writing was probably when I was thirteen. It was called “The Wind Blows.” It was very innocent: “The wind blows, and it blows through the town/And the people in the town hear it blow.”
Then I heard Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, and it was, like, “Whoa, I want to do that.” That was a mind-blowing event. He was the first artist who brought the two worlds together for me, the literary stuff and the traditional folk music. There was other stuff too, like when my dad brought home a copy of a Fugs album. I was lucky; I was exposed to a lot of the great music. The sixties were a real good time to be coming of age. I wasn’t really writing that much yet, just doing other people’s stuff, trying to find myself and find my voice, realizing I was never going to sound like Joan Baez or Judy Collins or Joni Mitchell.
I moved to Austin in 1974. I’d been in Fayetteville, where my father got tenure at the University of Arkansas. I started school there, but I’d met a guy who ended up in Austin, and he called me up and said, “You’ve gotta come down here.” I was madly in love with him, of course. My whole world revolved around these guys I was madly in love with. I went down there, and it was this kind of magical place. There was a magical, creative feeling in the air. The whole alternative culture controlled the town. It was all about live music. I played on the Drag. I would open up my guitar case and play for tips. Back then you could make a living doing that. The guy I went down to meet ended up dumping me, probably the best thing that could have happened.
This bar called the Hole in the Wall was my big goal. The guy who ran it kept promising me a gig, but when the calendar came out, I was devastated because I wasn’t on it. I asked him about it, and he said something like, “I’ve got enough chick singers already for this month.” There was still quite a bit of that Texas macho thing behind the alternative subculture.
I would drive over to play in Houston a lot; there was this burgeoning singer-songwriter scene going on there. I wound up living there in ’75 and ’76. That’s when I really started cutting my teeth more, building up a little following. Nanci Griffith—I remember meeting her when she was just starting out. I remember when Lyle Lovett was just this little kid from Klein. Eric Taylor was famous in Houston. Townes Van Zandt—I remember him kind of drifting in and out of town. There was this boys’ club kind of a thing: Townes, Guy Clark, Eric, Blaze Foley. They were all fairly intimidating.
It took me a while to get confident enough to recognize myself as a songwriter in my own right. I was doing a few little songs of my own but mostly other people’s. I recorded two albums for Folkways. The first didn’t have any of my songs; it was all traditional blues songs. The second one, that was the first time I really showcased all my own material.
I lived in New York for a year, then moved back to Austin in 1981. I don’t think it was really until this time that I started seeing myself as a songwriter. I was writing things like “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad.” Up till then, I hadn’t been exposed to the music business—I had not a clue what it was about. I wasn’t trying to get a record deal. I was just playing my music, trying to get gigs to make a living. But in late ’84 I went to L.A. I had a new batch of songs and started getting the attention of some of the record company people. They didn’t know what to do with me, how to market me, because I fell in the cracks between country and rock. I ended up staying in L.A. for six years.
Lately I’ve been feeling a little wistful about my early, simple stuff. Recently I found the words and chords to some songs I wrote when I first came to Austin, songs like “Full Moon” and “Song for a Jewelry Maker.” I started playing them and got real emotional and started crying. There was this innocence, this part of me that I missed, that I had left behind. I thought, “I want to record an album of early, early songs that have never been released and call it ‘Early Songs'”—do it raw, like a demo, a really simple, folky kind of record, coming full circle and starting all over again.
Sometimes I wish I could just stay home and write poetry, be a poet or a novelist—be like Flannery O’Connor, hiding away in her office, pulling down the blinds while she wrote.
Lucinda Williams, 51, lives in Los Angeles. Her seventh album, World Without Tears, was released last year.