Today’s spur-sharp crop of young female country singers owes a lot to Lucinda Williams. Without Williams, who in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s set the template for bourbon-slugging, disenchanted women in what came to be alt-country, there might not be a Kacey Musgraves, Caitlin Rose or Hurray for the Riff Raff as we know them today.
As with most great country, the original article has gotten only better with time. On Tuesday night at the Echoplex, Williams continued her drolly titled “World Tour of Los Angeles” (which has included stops at the Troubadour, Glasshouse and other Southland venues). It was a long trip through her catalog of witty, pleading, harrowing songs that feel like distress calls from the coolest young woman in every blighted Southern town.
She’s ostensibly touring behind a re-release of her long-out-of-print 1988 self-titled album for Rough Trade (whose brutal breakup single “Changed the Locks” was covered by Tom Petty), 2011’s “Blessed” and a forthcoming new album. But the set list touched every corner of her career.
Williams needed only a three-piece backing band to make her point. Guitarist Stuart Mathis provided spare, excellently melodic contributions, but the focus was entirely on these songs. Williams never had a traditionally pretty voice, but her salty Louisiana drawl was all the more convincing for it Tuesday. Tales of rural malaise and rock-'n'-roll tragedies from her groundbreaking 1998 album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” sounded only more hard-won. “2 Cool to Be 4-gotten,” “Greenville” and “Drunken Angel” perfected that mix of romance, regret and self-inflicted wounds that the best country delivers.
But the depth of set also put her writing in new context. Early, more traditionalist “I Lost It,” from the 1980s, went neglected in its time; here it had a desperation and power that only a few decades of actual loss could provide. “Seeing Black,” from “Blessed,” was written for the late singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who died by his own hand in 2009, and she played it with the quiver and confusion of a still-raw wound.
A trio of new songs mid-set didn’t quite have the immediacy of her back catalog staples, but “Foolishness” had a sparse, dreamy sadness befitting the Velvet Underground, whose “Pale Blue Eyes” she’s also been covering lately.
Williams’ legacy is in good hands with today’s young female artists. But a Williams set in 2014 reminds one only how striking, original and inimitable that voice is.