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Cow Girl Uninterrupted

RECKLESS AND RAW, LUCINDA WILLIAMS HAS MADE LUST, HARD LIVING, AND HEARTACHE THE ‘ESSENCE’ OF HER SONG

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A black volvo pulls up and a big man with a goatee steps out. ”Lu’s in a bit of a pickle,” he says.

I’ve been here for about an hour, sitting on the stoop in front of Lucinda Williams’ town house in Nashville, periodically ringing the doorbell. The big man ambles up and introduces himself as Dub Cornett; he’s a producer, filmmaker, and general bon vivant on the Nashville music scene, and one of Lucinda’s friends. We chat about books until his cell phone rings. It’s Lucinda. ”Yeah, he’s right here,” he tells her. He hands me the phone.

”Hi, Lucinda,” I say.

”I’m sooo embarrassed!” she says. She talks fast, like a teenager trying to win her daddy’s amnesty while keeping the details of an all-nighter willfully muddled. She’s on the other side of town. She let a friend borrow the truck and he was supposed to be back in a couple of hours but he didn’t come back so she was stranded without her keys and now she’s wondering whether we should meet at her house or the studio or the restaurant or the club. Dub nods and smiles in a manner that suggests, Be firm.

Come to the house, I offer. (Something tells me that if we don’t pin down a rendezvous point right now, the entire evening might sputter away.)

After warm goodbyes, I hand the cell back to Dub. ”She’s a genius,” he says. ”That explains it.”

Lucinda Williams has, to be sure, an almost superhuman flair for the manipulation of time. (”I need to work on that,” she’ll later say. ”People let me get away with it. Not my dad, though. He doesn’t think it’s endearing at all.”) She comes when she comes. Her music — a rough mix of folk, country, rock, gospel, and the blues, with lyrics so unflinchingly candid that a listener feels like a spelunker in the caverns of her heart — comes when it comes too. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the soul-baring Stars ‘n’ Bars travelogue that went gold and won a Grammy and finally fixed a permanent place for this perennial cult darling in the pop cosmos after four albums and two decades of struggle, came forth in 1998 only after six years of excruciating parturition. Loose and ghostly, her new album, Essence, was delivered after a different worry-fraught delay — one that suddenly gave way to a whiplash surge of motion.

Which is how it feels to meet her. When she hops out of her Chevy Silverado, another hour later, it’s as if a tiny rogue twister has touched down among the condos and ripped out a power line. She’s compact and limber, like a gymnast, and undeniably sexy at 48 in tight jeans and a blondish, punkish shag. Words tumble out.

I ought to see the ”hillbilly hoodoo,” she tells me. Inside the house Dub goes off to find this repository of good-luck charms — a box full of stones, chips, dirt, and snakeskin. Almost every shard in the hoodoo is a talisman from some holy site in the saga of American roots music. A hunk of tin from the roof of the Carter Family’s store in southwestern Virginia. A knot of wood from Dock Boggs’ front porch in the Appalachian Mountains. An orange prescription bottle clumped with sand from the confluence of the Clinch and Powell rivers. When Lucinda was in Minneapolis recording Essence, Dub mailed the ”hillbilly hoodoo” to her, ”just to have some good vibes in the studio and stuff,” she says.