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July 19, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Lucinda Williams is a woman of many titles. Although she’s been referred to as several things, such as a Grammy Award winner, song writing legend and genre bender, the name “good luck charm” isn’t one of them. But when the folk, Americana and country great comes to Stephens Lake Park on July 24, she’ll be a musical guest who could turn snake eyes to sixes for local promoter Thumper Entertainment. The company needs to attract 1,500-2,000 people for the concert to break even. Expecting that many people to trust the credibility of a new venue on its debut is a financial risk. Further, promoters are staking the future of the series on this single show, but the payoff could be much more than one memorable night of music. The dice are in hand. The only thing left to do is roll.
Lucinda knows a thing or two about taking chances. She left the Louisiana house of her poet father and pianist mother in the mid-’70s to cut her teeth in the streets and clubs of Houston and Austin, Texas. The songwriter recorded her first album — all covers, ironically — in 1978 and has worked ever since to build a fervent fan base and the respect of peers and critics, all with little help from radio airplay. Three decades later, Lucinda’s fans are legion and devoted. Her gamble paid off.
Who: Lucinda Williams @SLP Presented by The Crossing
When: Tuesday, July 24; Gates open at 6 p.m., shuttles from Fifth and Walnut streets parking garage begin at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Stephens Lake Park
Now, Lucinda is taking another chance as an artist: changing record labels. She is, for the first time voluntarily, a free agent. For years, Lucinda was the woman with no label luck, but a new deal with Lost Highway Records that began with 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road provided the stability she’d never had. Records started coming out after one or two years when they used to take three times as long. “I had what I think was an eight-album contract,” she says. “When you do that, you have to have things a little bit scheduled.”
Lucinda says she is now in talks with several record companies, including the kinds of independent labels that couldn’t support her when she was a rising artist. The most important negotiating point, Lucinda says, is owning the master copies of her songs herself. Independent labels embrace more artist-oriented contracts, she says, and let the artists maintain control of their own work. A lot is different in the music industry since she last signed a record deal, but Lucinda is used to change.
One of the biggest personal changes for Lucinda has been her 2010 marriage to Tom Overby, a former record-label executive who is now her manager. The two met while she was laying down demo tracks for her album West, which was a particularly downbeat record, even for Lucinda. She followed that record with Little Honey, or “West Part Two,” as she calls it, because the songs were originally meant for a second disc of West. By then Lucinda was engaged to Tom, and every press interview seemed to yield the same questions. “Everybody assumed all the songs on Little Honey were about Tom,” she says. “So they’d interview me, and they’d be like, ‘This is your happy album because you’re happy,’ and I’d say, ‘No, no, no.’”
Lucinda says she is still a little taken aback by the idea that happiness would affect her song writing. “That’s the other thing that kept getting asked, which really annoyed me,” she says. “‘Oh, now you’re comfortable and happy. Are you going to be able to write?’ I’m an artist. Of course I’m gonna still be writing.”
In fact, she says her most recent years have been her most prolific. There will always be something in life to write about, she says. “I just got tired of writing the same thing all the time, the heartbreak songs all the time,” Lucinda says. “When I met Tom, I said to myself, ‘Well, I’d better learn how to write about different things.’ And that had always been a goal of mine.”
As soon as the ink dries on a new contract, Lucinda says she plans on heading into the studio. She has 20 new songs completed and another 10 in progress, and she’s been playing her strongest songs live to gauge the audience’s reactions.
Lucinda is also turning her music knowledge and experience into tools to help other musicians. “It’s kind of challenging,” she says. “It sort of lets me do something outside of myself a little bit.” One beneficiary of Lucinda’s guidance is Austin folk-pop songwriter Amy Cook, who will be the opening act for the Columbia show. Lucinda says she found out about her while Amy was playing in the parking lot of the Hotel San Jose during the South by Southwest film and music festival a few years ago.
The two musicians kept in touch, and Lucinda handpicked Amy as her tour’s opener. “It’s been amazing to have her input and support,” Amy says. “It’s a real confidence booster, and it feels good to have somebody you admire choose you to open for her.”
As she plays night after night for fans of a songwriter she reveres, Amy, whose new album Summer Skin is set for release on Aug. 28, wants her work to catch on. “As an opener, you always hope that it translates and people like what you do,” she says. Amy says she particularly strives for the deceptively simple and relatable songs she hears from songwriters such as Lucinda. “I think those are the hardest songs to write, and she’s great at it,” Amy says.
For Thumper Entertainment, the company behind the concert, the moment to roll the dice is now, and it’s been a long time coming. Thumper waited to find the best match for the outdoor venue. According to President Betsy Farris, the company has been working on a summer concert in addition to The BCNB Roots ’N’ Blues ’N’ BBQ Festival for three and a half years.
Thanks to Lucinda’s big name, the event’s other pieces are falling into place. Thumper Entertainment got sponsors on board, and it’s offering free spaces during the show for businesses to educate the crowd about sustainability. The production company has also lined up food trucks, such as Pepe’s of Columbia and Jamaican Jerk Hut. The crowd can stay cool with misting stations or beer and wine.
The company says it hopes Lucinda’s single Missouri show will draw crowds from across the state. If it is a success, Thumper Entertainment will begin working this fall to turn the inaugural summer show into a full concert series in 2013. All it will take is a little beginner’s luck at the venue and some help from an old pro.