Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams was long recognized by music critics and many of her peers as a talented singer/songwriter before the commercial success of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998.

She was born Jan. 26, 1953, in Lake Charles, La., and later sang about her birthplace on Car Wheels.

Williams' interest in music was inspired by her father — a poet and college professor who was also a big Hank Williams fan. Lucinda was raised on traditional country & western music.

She moved with her family several times when she was young, living in several southern U.S. cities as well as Mexico City and Santiago, Chile. When she was 16, Williams began reading the novels of Flannery O'Connor, whom she cites as an influence on her songwriting.

Williams quit college in 1971 to devote her energies to music. Seven years later she signed with Folkways Records, which issued her debut LP, Ramblin' on My Mind (1979). After her sophomore effort, Happy Woman Blues (1980), she found herself without a label and began working odd jobs.

In the mid-'80s, she moved to Los Angeles and married (and later divorced) Greg Sowders of country-rockers the Long Ryders. She then secured a contact with Rough Trade Records and issued an eponymous comeback album in 1988. The LP, whose theme was her marriage, featured tracks such as "Changed the Locks" (later covered by Tom Petty), "Passionate Kisses" (a Grammy Award–winning hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1993) and "Side of the Road."

After the label folded in 1991, indie label Chameleon released Sweet Old World (1992), including a take on Nick Drake's "Which Will," the title cut and "Pineola."

Williams then moved back to Austin, Texas, but ended up living in Nashville while she wrote songs and looked for a new record company.

In 1993 she contributed to Sweet Relief, the benefit LP for unrelated singer Victoria Williams, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Three years later she dueted on "You're Still Standin' There" with Steve Earle on his I Feel Alright.

Following a fruitless stint on the American Recordings record label, Williams signed with Mercury Records and issued Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Critical word on the LP (which featured tales of Southern life sung in Williams' charming twang) was highly positive, and sales slowly picked up until it became her first gold record. In 1999 the album, which featured tracks such as "Right in Time" and "Greenville" (RealAudio excerpt), won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Williams made a number of guest appearances on peers' albums in the late '90s, including Nanci Griffith's Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful), Bruce Cockburn's Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu and John Prine's In Spite of Ourselves.

Last year she sang the title track (with David Crosby) of Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons. Williams also toured steadily and opened for Petty.

Other artists who have recorded Williams' songs include Patty Loveless, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Emmylou Harris. Both Vic Chesnutt and Buffalo Nickel have recorded songs about her, titled "Lucinda Williams."

Williams, who is writing songs for her next LP, said, when Car Wheels was issued: "It doesn't feel like it's been six years since my last record. I was out performing, writing and it's not like I wasn't active and out there doing things. A lot of my name being kept in the public eye is due to the Internet and all of that. People have been able to stay in touch with what's going on. Instead of losing momentum, it increased."

Other birthdays on Wednesday: Huey "Piano" Smith, 66; Derek Holt (Climax Blues Band), 51; David Briggs (Little River Band), 49; Andy Hummel (Big Star), 49; Eddie Van Halen, 45; Norman Hassan (UB40), 42; Tom Keifer (Cinderella), 39; Ed Crawford (fIREHOSE), 38; Andrew Ridgeley (Wham!), 37; Kirk Franklin, 30; and Ya Kid K (Technotronic), 28.