JACK W. HILL
Victoria Williams hasn't let a little thing like multiple sclerosis slow her down all that much.
The singer-songwriter, who was born in Shreveport, recently released her fifth studio album, Water to Drink. It's an album of her songs sung in big-band, jazzy, romantic style, along with such classics as "Young at Heart," "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" and the title cut, written by Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.
"My next album will really be of standards," she says. "I kind of stole those three songs from it, but I hope to record some more for it in March."
Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease, in 1992 when she was out on tour with Neil Young and noticed her hands and feet were getting numb. Since playing guitar is the way she made her living, and since, like most musicians, she had no insurance, she began to contemplate the problems faced by many a musician when health problems occur.
She started an organization, Sweet Relief, whose first project was a 1993 compilation CD titled Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams, on which her musical friends recorded 14 of her songs. Soul Asylum's version of "Summer of Drugs" became something of a hit, as did the album, thanks to the participation of Lucinda Williams, Pearl Jam, Buffalo Tom, Michael Penn, Shudder to Think, Lou Reed, Maria McKee, Matthew Sweet, Evan Dando (of the Lemonheads), the Jayhawks, the Waterboys, Giant Sand and Michelle Shocked.
A second Sweet Relief compilation, Gravity of the Situation, followed two years later, on which the music of Vic Chesnutt was performed by his friends, including R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage and Nanci Griffith. (The wheelchair-bound Chesnutt, injured in a car wreck, played a band member in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade.) A third Sweet Relief CD is in the planning stages.
"We were thinking of doing Nick Drake songs, but now it seems like that's not going to be," Williams says. "We're thinking it will be Sly Stone songs now."
Williams has an unusual, quavery little-girl voice that could be compared at times to a blend of Rickie Lee Jones, Cyndi Lauper and Billie Holiday. She started her recording career in 1987 with Happy Come Home, released by Geffen Records, but switched to Rough Trade Records for her follow-up, Swing the Statue, in 1990. In 1994, she released Loose on Mammoth Records, then a year later she put out a live album, This Moment in Toronto With the Loose Band, also for Mammoth.
Following her diagnosis, Williams has found that medication has helped her condition, as have treatments at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"My health is pretty good; I just take a shot every day," she says. "Living in the desert, the heat makes it worse, but it's ideal right now. It's beautiful here, but in the summer, it gets really hot, but a dry hot, compared with Shreveport. I just manage to stay out of it in the daytime or jump in the pool."
Williams' husband, Mark Olson, is a musician with his own extensive resume. A founding member of the Jayhawks, a Minneapolis-based alternative country group, he recorded four albums with that group, including their two best-known, Hollywood Town Hall in 1992 and Tomorrow the Green Grass in 1995. He left in 1995 to marry Williams and live with her in Joshua Tree, Calif., where he started a new group, the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers.
"We met back in '84 or '85 when he came to one of my shows and helped me with the amplifier, getting it to the car afterwards," Williams says. "He was living in Santa Monica at the time and I had moved to Los Angeles in '79, and we started calling. We ended up living in Joshua Tree because I used to come here with my dog, Bill, and go camping.
"Later I took to renting a cabin in Rim Rock, which is higher and a little cooler. Then when Mark and I got married, the cabin was too small, so we became homesteaders by buying an old place we found. We rescued it, dug and built our own swimming pool and planted an orchard with peaches, apples, apricots, figs, almonds, pecans, nectarines and cherries."
The couple somehow found time to begin recording and releasing their own albums as the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, starting in 1998 with Musings of a Creek Dipper and continuing with Pacific Coast Rambler, also in 1998, and Zola and the Tulip Tree, in 1999.
Only the latest release, My Own Jo Ellen, bears Olson's name in front of the band's name. Williams sings with him on the album and also plays electric banjo and guitars. Mike "Raz" Russell, a multi-instrumentalist (bass, violin, mandolin), is the other permanent band member and is with Williams and Olson on the tour, as are Josh Grange on pedal steel guitar and Don Heffington on drums.
"This will be our
first show in Arkansas," Williams says, "except for an outdoor folk show
in Eureka Springs, which wasn't even booked."
This article was published on Sunday, February 11, 2001