For nearly two decades Lucinda Williams has traveled a twisted musical path. Too bluesy to be strictly folk, too folkie to be pure country, this Louisiana singer-songwriter sampled several genres before settling into an earnest hybrid of styles that garnered her a small, devoted following but was too much of a hodgepodge for broad commercial appeal. Now Williams is walking a country-pop mile, which is a wise choice: for too long she has let her love of the blues overshadow her real talent as an exceedingly adept new-country stylist.

Williams’s transformation from blues belter to countrified rocker has spanned several years. It was with Lucinda Williams, her 1988 Rough Trade release, that she at last wrestled her various influences into a cohesive package, creating a passel of country-rock nuggets that represented a near-perfect absorption of both traditional and pop idioms. Her voice, always just a hair shy of bluesy excess, at last relaxed into the more natural accent of her melancholic rural twang.

Then there were the lyrics. Like James McMurtry, Williams springs from a patrilineal literary tradition–her father, Miller Williams, is a poet and literature professor, and on Lucinda Williams she drew her characters with a poet’s attention to detail: ambivalent lovers unable to decide which is the more precarious option, loss of love or loss of self; a frustrated waitress lusting for a fast boy and an open road; a girl grappling with memories of lost youth while driving home to New Orleans.

Lucinda Williams was a masterful blend of plaintive romanticism and naked conceit, bristling with hooks; it should have broken Williams to a larger audience, but the demise of her label, Rough Trade, banished the album to distribution limbo. Now, four years later, Williams is back with a new album on Chameleon, Sweet Old World, exploring the same territory she mined so artfully on the earlier record.

But among Williams’s many talents there is one serious flaw, and that is her wooden demeanor onstage. Two years ago I saw Williams perform at a small club in Boston. The band was tight, the songs were sharply crafted gems, and her voice was a strong and supple instrument in its own right. But her manner was stiff as a board, her eyes blank, her face devoid of expression during both the up-tempo numbers and the slower ballads. Her between-song patter, forced and brief, did little to cut the chill. The crowd was politely receptive, but Williams’s presentation made the proceedings feel formal and rather cerebral. The show ultimately lacked electricity, and left one longing for the earthy sensuality of a Tanya Tucker, maybe, or the ingenuous sparkle of Dolly Parton. The best country performers carry on a love affair with the audience, but as a live performer Williams had all the charisma of a dry twig.

When Williams came to the Park West recently, to open for Graham Parker, I hoped to see a more engaging performer, or at least not such a dour one, but little had changed in the years since that Boston appearance. Williams talked more between numbers, volunteered some explanation about the inspirations of certain songs, but her spiel was perfunctory and the performance itself lackluster. I left wondering how such an insightful songwriter and expressive singer could so thoroughly fail to convey the least bit of passion. At her worst she was like the prim Miss Jane Hathaway, sympathetic to the hillbillies who have landed in Beverly Hills but unable to let her hair down long enough to really embrace their crazy world. Williams occasionally smiled at a band member or swayed to the music, but these brief moments were few and far between.

Too bad, because Williams’s material holds up well in a live venue. The set was a smart mix of material from both Sweet Old World and Lucinda Williams. The band started off on a high note, launching into the jangly pop melody of “I Just Want to See You So Bad,” then moved swiftly into “Crescent City,” a paean to Williams’s Louisiana roots. There is a snappy quickness to a lot of Williams’s tunes; a friend described many of the songs in her set as “two and a half minute wonders,” and indeed her pop sensibility is so keen it seems she can’t help but turn out songs that feel perfectly built for radio airplay. Most notable of these is her current single, “Six Blocks Away.” “It’s just bustin’ the charts,” she joked quietly, by way of introducing the sprightly folk-pop jaunt about a friend who can find everything but love within his small piece of New York City. Similarly, in “Lines Around Your Eyes,” another cut on Sweet Old World that seems destined for the country charts, Williams adheres to a standard pop formula of alternating verse and chorus, describing a lover she just can’t get out of her system. It is a testament to her skill with words and melody that these songs are catchy and familiar on first listen, without the staleness that can so easily taint formula writing. Williams is most at home in this country-pop milieu, and it’s telling that the only part of the set that dragged was an adequately played but snoozy blues interlude.

The songs on Sweet Old World are complemented with the sounds of fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel, and dobro. Stripped down to the essential rock ‘n’ roll lineup of guitar, bass, and drums on tour, Williams’s band packs a harder punch as a live unit. Generally tight without sounding slick, they pounded through a few kinks on the newer material. Williams’s former bassist, Dr. John Ciambotti, who contributed to Sweet Old World and lent a sly air to the band during their Boston performance, was missed in this lineup, but guitarist Gurf Morlix more than compensated for his absence. Morlix’s tasteful, spirited playing can’t be praised enough. “He has his own fan club,” Williams said during her introductions, and the reason why was apparent on several occasions. Morlix got the one spontaneous ovation of the set, during the raunchy blues-rock number “Hot Blood,” when he played a knockout lead on his guitar using a beer bottle for a slide–an old trick, for sure, but Morlix breathed real soul into what could have been just a cliched stunt. His sharp country-pop hooks dominated the melodies, but he steered clear of any superfluous noodling. And Morlix is equally at home with the blues; when the band launched into “Changed the Locks,” his hard, bluesy frontal assault briefly threatened to overshadow Williams.

But overall Williams’s voice was a perfect match for her band, important for a singer whose lyrics must be clearly heard to be fully appreciated. Before she launched into “Passionate Kisses,” she was quick to point out that Mary Chapin-Carpenter had covered the infectious, pop-inflected tune. “Lucky for me,” Williams said, referring to the boost it had given her career. But there’s more than luck going on in this instance; Williams, for all her flaws as a stage personality, is clearly in a league of her own as a songwriter.

Williams is so good that when she does write an inferior piece the effect is jarringly noticeable. The song “He Never Got Enough Love” was one of her few blunders, the lyrics a facile account of an abused boy who grows up and guns down a hapless kid outside a liquor store, which lands him on death row. The song was inspired by an article Williams read about a man facing the death penalty. “I tried to imagine what his family life had been like,” she explained to the Park West audience, but the song lacked the subtlety that is Williams’s hallmark.

Generally Williams is quite proficient with the murkier side of life. One of the best examples of this is the slinky, Cajun-inflected “Pineola.” The story, told from the perspective of a young girl, is harsh and direct: when a boy named Sonny offs himself in bed with a .44, the living are left to clean up the mess.

“I could not speak a single word / No tears streamed down my face / I just sat there on the living room couch / Staring off into space,” sings the stunned narrator. It’s not clear what her relationship was to the dead boy: Were they lovers? Friends? In both narrative and musical structure, there is a potent resemblance here to Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit “Ode to Billy Joe.” The horrible details of suicide are couched in penny-plain language. Both songs hint at darker reasons behind the deaths, information known only to the narrators, who now must live alone with their misbegotten knowledge.

In “Pineola” the narrator’s parents strip down the ruined bed sheets, and later a group of family and friends mourn at the grave serenaded by a preacher’s words. Some of the characters in this story try to restore order to the situation, but the narrator knows that this kind of blood never quite scrubs off the wall. The denouement finds the narrator, overcome by the morbid events of the day, not quite able to remember whether or not she tossed a handful of dust over Sonny’s plot.

“Pineola” is a good example of Williams’s ability to paint a portrait of a tragedy without wallowing in the maudlin. It was a vivid moment during the live rendition at the Park West–you could feel the heat, hear the flies buzzing, sense the numbing heartache. Morlix on guitar took up the slack left by the hard-edged fiddle that dominates the album version, and moved decisively from a slashing rock ‘n’ roll sound down to a spare blues lead in the space of a few bars; it was a perfect counterpart to Williams’s stunning vocal interpretation, a twangy resignation that teetered on the edge of despair. The end of innocence is never pretty, and Williams knows that such provocative material requires a deft touch.

There are many adult moods to be heard in Williams’s repertoire. In “Side of the Road,” one of her finest pieces (which she unfortunately failed to include at the Park West), the narrator leaves her lover waiting on the roadside while she walks out alone into a field. It’s a critical moment in the relationship, the narrator at war with the conflicting demands of commitment and independence. She spots a farmhouse in the distance and ponders the hopes and failures that play out behind closed doors:

I wondered about the people who lived in it

I wondered if they were happy and content

Were there children, a man, and a wife?

Did she love him and take her hair down at night?

These are plaints of the common man and the common woman, questions that are both simple and inordinately complicated, and Williams has spent a good part of her almost 20-year career getting close enough to capture such cries of the heart. She seems to have walked through many fields, and stood on lots of roadsides, to get to this juncture. Now if only she could siphon some of the sympathetic grace and wild passion of her songs into her stage persona, she could command the sort of attention this material deserves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.