Down-home diva

Harry Cherkinian, Contributing writer

The first time I saw Lucinda Williams was in 2000. She walked tentatively on stage, hiding beneath what looked like a 50-gallon cowboy hat, surrounded by a band of men and the unwanted glare of a hot white spotlight.

But while her stage presence was yet a work in progress, the songs were complete in their rootsy brilliance. Tales of life back home in Lake Charles, La., and timeless stories of love lost and its aftermath filled the stage. Williams exuded a simple but fierce determination to tell the stories that most affected her.

I’ve seen her perform countless times since, and while Williams’ comfort level on stage has evolved, her earnest, down-home quality remains. Her fans, including many in the LGBT community, will get a rare chance to see her in a solo acoustic performance at Turner Hall Ballroom Feb. 23, when she’ll take to the stage equipped only with her guitar.

“When I first started out, people would say, ‘You’re really good but you need to work on your stage presence,’” Williams, sitting at the kitchen table in her Studio City, Calif., home, tells me over the phone. “Practice makes it a little bit easier.”

At 58, Williams is moving in new directions, on stage and in recordings, while remaining true to her alt-country roots. She released her first album, “Ramblin,” in 1979, but it would take another 19 years before she’d break through with the landmark “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” winning what would be the first of three Grammy Awards (out of 11 nominations). With her soon-to-be-released 11th album, “Blessed,” Williams is back in the spotlight.

“There’s still that pre-show anxiety thing, but I’ve come to sort of embrace it,” Williams says. “I realize it’s part of the process.”

Williams keeps a lyric book on a music stand while she performs – “like a safety net, just in case,” she says. That strategy has clearly influenced other performers.

When Williams performed five nights in New York City in 2007, playing a different album front to back each night, David Johansen of the classic glam rock band the New York Dolls joined her on stage. “I could tell he was really relieved to see I had my lyric book up there,” Williams says. “I even made extra copies” of songs.

A year later, when Williams and her manager and husband Tom Overby went to see the Dolls perform in Los Angeles, she got a pleasant surprise. “Bless his heart, but David Johansen had a lyric book on a music stand on stage,” she says. I detect a smile in her voice.

Williams says she’s come to a point in her career where live performance is integral to her persona. If she forgets a word or doesn’t like the way a song is going, she’ll just start over. Her audiences have come to expect it – even look forward to it.

“It seems to work for me with my audience,” she says. “But I also tell them, ‘Trust me, the second go around is going to be better.’ And it is.”

Lucinda Williams performs her solo acoustic show at 8 p.m. on Feb. 23 at Turner Hall Ballroom. Call 414-286-3205 or visit www.pabsttheater.org.