On the eve of AmericanaFest in Nashville, Lucinda Williams was celebrated at BMI’s headquarters as the recipient of the performing rights organization’s annual Troubadour Award, where an invitation-only crowd heard Williams’ songs covered by Jason Isbell, Angel Olsen, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Amos Lee and Madeline Edwards.
Other artists saluted Williams via taped congratulations, like Robert Plant and Dwight Yoakam, who called giving Williams the lifetime achievement award “long overdue.” Maybe it wasn’t that long overdue: Williams is only the fourth artist to get the Troubadour honor since it was instituted in 2017, following in the footsteps of John Prine, John Hiatt and Robert Earl Keen.
“Thanks to everyone for making me feel at home here in Nashville after moving from L.A.,” Williams said in accepting the award at a ceremony held in the oversized lobby of BMI’s Music Row branch. “I’ve really enjoyed it and I’ve made some great friends and everybody’s been very supportive, and it feels like family.”
Performing with a house band, Isbell brought along the 400 Unit’s co-lead guitarist, Sadler Vaden, to join him on the honoree’s sorrowful “Drunken Angel,” while Lee did another elegaic song from Williams’ catalog, “Little Angel, Little Brother.” Olsen took on “Fruits of My Labor,” relative newcomer Edwards covered “Passionate Kisses” (a hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter), and Gibbons got his licks in on a feistier classic, “Changed the Locks.”
Williams, who was helped to the stage but appeared healthy as she continues to recover from a 2020 stroke, had plenty of appreciative words, starting off with effusive praise for her publicist, Jim Flammia — now there’s a rarity in an acceptance speech — but reserving the most for her current label, Thirty Tigers.
“One of the reasons I signed with that label is (David Macias is) an old radical lefty,” she said. “We hit it off right away because he started talking about the industrial workers of the world, and he gave me an album of the songs from the Wobbly era and Woody Guthrie and everything, and progressive Southern social democrats. He’s running a record company, and yet he’s speaking the right way, for the people, by the people — smash the corporations.” After a pause, she added: “Well, I don’t want to smash BMI, though! Y’all are good.”
Steve Earle, who co-produced her “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” album 25 years ago, saluted her in a video interview as a feminist hero… and a late riser. “She’s pretty unique. She’s nocturnal. She doesn’t do well in sunlight,” Earle quipped. “Some of the stuff that’s funny I’m not gonna tell you about. I know her really well, so some of the stuff is not for you.”
Said Elizabeth Cook, in the same video presentation, “She gave me permission to just feel exactly how I wanted to feel and say what I wanted to say and look how I wanted to look doing it. And to see her have success for that makes it feel not so selfish… and probably got me in trouble with Music Row a lot more. But, you know, thank God.” Later, Cook got anecdotal about other things she picked up from Williams: “She told me to wear glitter nail polish. That’s the best rock ‘n’ roll guitar-player-girl nail polish, the glitter, because when you chip it, you can just cover it up again real easy. It’s a metaphor, right?”
Said Edwards before performing her cover, “Lucinda Williams is an important woman for women like me, because she is someone who took the road less traveled in terms of music and genre. And for someone like me who’s new to Nashville and my background is in soul and jazz and blues, and I ended up deciding to come over to rock and country and Americana, it was very important for me to have a representative like you who did that for us… Any time anyone asks how do you expect to do all of this with all these genres, I say ‘Well, if Lucinda Williams can do all this, then so can I.’”
Plant, who is nominated for an Americana award this week for his duo work with Alison Krauss, told “Lu” that “let’s face it, I think the whole world recognizes the beauty and the body of your work and your lyrics… You’re a really fine lady. You’re one of my heroes/heroines… I love you very much, and I’m going to see you a lot sooner than you think. Boo!” That vow seemed to augur well for some kind of surprise Plant appearance in Nashville during the coming week.
The most passionate speech came from Bill Bentley, the Austin-cum-L.A. music journalist and former Warner Bros. staffer. He spoke about discovering Williams busking in Austin in 1974 while he was writing for a local alternative paper, and writing and publishing an entire article that only referred to her by her first name, because he’d failed to ask her her last. “Doggone it, man, I wish I’d said hello more back on the drag back in 1974,” he said.
Bentley talked about how, a couple of years ago, he put together the second of two tribute albums he’d compiled in honor of his hero, Roky Erickson, and how difficult it was to attract performers for the most recent one. The only two artists who quickly agreed to contribute without asking who else was on it, he said, were both in the room: Gibbons and Williams.
“When Lucinda said yes, I think that her saying yes to me made me once again believe that, like the old 13th Floor Elevators song said, the kingdom of heaven is within you… She has been vocal about what she loves. She gave me the hope that, even in my 70s now, you never give up, man. Her music has given me a backbone of steel to believe that and live that dream all these years. … Lucinda, keep making records and keep giving us hope that the world is a wonderful place for all of us.”