The Music of Hope

updated 05/01/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/01/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

VICTORIA WILLIAMS AMBLES ON-stage wearing a smile as wide as her fluttery flowered dress. Sounding like a hillbilly cross between Minnie Pearl and Joni Mitchell, she sprinkles her voice over the evocative down-home songs—many from her latest album, Loose—that have made her an alternative music cult figure for nearly a decade. The only sign that something is wrong comes when Williams, 35, asks that the audience not smoke. Her fans understand: Though she doesn't look it, Williams is far more fragile than they are. She has multiple sclerosis.

Ironically, in the wake of her three-year-old illness, Williams is closer than she has ever been to mainstream success. Had she not been stricken with MS, her many A-list fans—including Lou Reed, Pearl Jam and Soul Asylum—wouldn't have come together on Sweet Relief, the highly praised tribute album that not only raised money to pay the uninsured singer's medical bills but also revived her career. "It just goes to show," she says, "how something good can come out of something bad."

The something had become apparent in Detroit in the spring of 1992. Several weeks into a tour assignment, opening for Neil Young, an exhausted Williams limped onstage and discovered that her fingers "were just flopping and wouldn't do what my brain told them to." She flew home to Los Angeles, where doctors diagnosed the problem. "When I asked, 'What now?' they shook their heads," Williams says. "They don't know either." Despite a regimen of conventional medicine and physical therapy, she soon lost the use of her legs and was confined to a wheelchair. "That first year was pretty bad," says Williams, who began gardening to regain her finger strength. "Then I got used to having less energy."

Musical pals rallied and staged benefit concerts in Los Angeles and New York City, then recorded cuts for Sweet Relief, a collection of Williams's songs performed by other artists. "She's a funky genius," says Reed. "Listening to her sing is a demonstration of majestic power." Since its 1993 release, the album has sold about 250,000 copies and earned over $200,000, enough to cover the costs of her treatment—up to $1,000 a week during bad spells. "It reaffirms my faith in people being God's little helpers," says the devout Williams.

Praise be. Relief's success brought her a recording contract for Loose, a folk and gospel-tinged ramble through the South of her youth. The youngest of three kids born to a schoolteacher mother and a father who sold insurance, Williams grew up in Shreveport, La., and started piano lessons in third grade. Later she studied music and French at the Centenary College of Louisiana, before moving to L.A. and hitting the small music clubs in 1979. Her debut album, Happy Come Home, was released in 1987. The next three years were spent recording a follow-up, Swing the Statue!, and ending her six-year marriage to musician Peter Case. "I was raised to believe divorce was the worst sort of failure," Williams says. "So I didn't know how to deal with it."

Enter guitarist Mark Olson, whom Williams had met 12 years earlier when he offered to carry her amps after a show. In December 1993, he married her. "I was shocked and uncertain, but I knew he was who I should be married to," Williams says of Olson, with whom she lives in California's Laurel Canyon.

For now, electrode treatments that artificially stimulate her muscles, homeopathic algae drinks ("They help my blood get more oxygen," she says) and an organic diet allow Williams to bypass medication and maintain a delicate, if unpredictable, balance. "I have good days and bad days," says Williams, currently in remission and well enough to spend most of the summer touring. "I know it could get a lot worse. But God never gives me anything I can't handle."

TODD GOLD in Los Angeles

From Our Partners