09/21/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Even on a rare day at home in her three-bedroom brick house in Nashville, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams keeps an eye on the road. Munching a peanut butter sandwich that her live-in boyfriend and bandmate, bassist Richard Price, has just fixed for her, she pores over an upcoming cross-country tour itinerary (13 cities in 18 days) that would have most folks reaching for the Dramamine. But for Williams, too much time in one place makes her edgy. "I get restless," she says in a soft Louisiana drawl. "I've always got one foot out the door."
Twenty years after she first got her foot in the door, Williams, 45, with five albums and a Grammy to her credit, is only now enjoying mainstream success. A critically acclaimed songwriter whose tunes have been recorded by Tom Petty, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter, Williams's own sound stymied Nashville record execs and radio programmers who felt "it fell in the cracks between country and rock," she says. But now, thanks to a haunting fifth album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Williams is an insider's secret no more. A richly imagined cycle of songs released in June, Car Wheels landed her a featured spot on the Lilith Fair tour and is already being touted by critics as, 1998's album of the year. "She has a gift for describing the interiors of our lives in details that ring so true," says Carpenter, whose version of Williams's "Passionate Kisses" won the Grammy in 1994 for best country song. And, she adds, Williams can sing some too: "She has a voice that Emmylou Harris says can tear the chrome off a bumper. Luanda can sing down-and-dirty blues, then sing something in the most tender way that just melts you."
Composing such emotionally laden songs is painful, Williams admits, but a breeze compared to the what-to-wear agony she suffered on the eve of the '94 Grammy Awards. "The whole thing intimidated the hell out of me," she says. "I started thinking all these people in designer clothes would be there, judging me. 'What if I don't look good enough?' I was just filled with self-doubt.
Even though she would emerge a winner that night, Williams took the easy way out and stayed home, a tact that was seldom an option during her peripatetic childhood. Born in Lake Charles, La., the oldest of three children, she was 11 when her parents divorced. (Her father, Miller Williams, a University of Arkansas prof, is a poet who read at Clinton's second Inaugural; her mother, Lucille Morgan, now lives in Knoxville, Tenn.) Raised by her father when her mother suffered health problems, Williams and her siblings (brother Robert, 43, works for a New Orleans trucking company; sister Karyn, 41, is a nurse in Indianapolis) moved with him to teaching posts in nine cities—as far away as Santiago, Chile—in 12 years. "I dragged the children with me and didn't realize what rootlessness that might create," says Miller, now remarried and living in Fayetteville, Ark. But Williams insists that "it wasn't this big, traumatic thing. I never remember getting bummed out about it. I didn't grow up in a mom-and-pop, Ozzie and Harriet type of environment, but who did?"
Inspired by artistic family friends, including writers James Dickey, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski, she set her sights on a music career early on. "It was never, 'I've got to be a huge star,' " says Williams, who began picking guitar at age 12. After high school she spent a decade honing her chops in southern music clubs and cafes before releasing her first album in 1979. "I just wanted to be able to make a living doing this."
Mission accomplished. Now her challenge is finding time to indulge her lifelong passion for writing letters to family and friends—always with a fountain pen, no e-mail—and balancing the road and her relationship. Williams and Price, 49, met through a mutual friend at a Nashville club in 1995. (A 1986 marriage to Long Ryders drummer Greg Sowders ended in divorce after a year and a half.) "We shook hands," recalls Price, "and serious eye contact, spark, buzz kicked in."
Now that Williams has finally arrived, don't expect her to stay put for long. While she and Price have talked about marrying and starting a family—"That maternal instinct thing hit me just when I got into my 40s, of all times," she says—their Nashville home is a rental. "As soon as I live anywhere for a couple of years," she says, "I start thinking, 'Hmm, maybe I'd like to live out in the desert somewhere.' "
Beverly Keel in Nashville