It’s been a rainy winter at Victoria Williams’ old homestead cabin and 10-acre spread in Joshua Tree, California. Now, the fruit trees are overflowing with apricots and plums.
“There must be millions of plums,” she says wistfully in her dreamy, childlike voice during our telephone conversation. “I’m going into the fruit farming business.”
Unfortunately, fruit trees aren’t the only things blossoming at Joshua Tree. While talking about how she met her husband Mark Olson—formerly of the Minneapolis roots rock band the Jayhawks—years ago when he helped her carry her amplifiers at a gig, she drops a bombshell. Williams says she has not seen Olson since Dec. 4 of last year. They were supposed to reunite after his recent tour with the other main former Jayhawk, Gary Louris, but she is starting to think her husband has another woman.
While heating a pot of leftovers on the stove in her old homestead cabin, with its knotty pine walls, Williams talks about how years after they met, Olson won her love. Sounding somehow half Australian and half young southern belle, Williams recalls the time that Olson met a boyfriend of hers in her Laurel Canyon driveway and vowed he would steal her away.
Wanting to keep Williams upbeat, I steer her back towards questions regarding her storied musical career. When asked what musician inspired her to pick up the guitar as a teenager, she has one definite answer. “Well, I have to say Neil Young,” Williams says. “Uh huh, Neil Young.”
Years later, in 1992, Williams would get to open for her idol on a national tour. By then, she was finally getting her due as a singer/songwriter—for whimsical songs like “Frying Pan” and great story songs about southern smalltown living like “Crazy Mary,” which is based on a real story about an eccentric woman who avoided automobiles but died when a car ran into her home. Around this time, Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
When I mention that obviously tumultuous time in her life, she acknowledges the period by saying “yeah, bummer” into the phone. “I was scared,” she adds. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was fortunate, because I had some inner strength.”
Luckily, she also had the respect and admiration of her peers in the music industry, who put on benefit concerts and came together for the 1993 album Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams. The album featured the biggest artists of the early ‘90s—Pearl Jam, Lou Reed, Soul Asylum and Matthew Sweet—each covering one of her songs. Williams says that to this day, proceeds from the album help cover her $1,300 worth of bills a month that come from having to take daily medicine that keeps the degenerative neurological disorder at bay.
The Sweet Relief Foundation, which was set up from sales of the record, released another album in 1996, to honor partially paralyzed singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. She says that the organization was recently looking into a tribute album of artists covering Sly Stone songs. Right now, she is not sure if the project will move ahead.
“If it actually happens, I’ll hear about it,” she says.
Eventually, talk returns to her recent recording career, most of which has been with Olson in a group called The Original Harmony Creek Dippers. The band has released an impressive seven albums since their self-titled debut in 1997.
“They are low-fi, but they have great songs on them,” she says of the CDs, most of which were recorded at Williams and Olson’s homestead in Joshua Tree.
When asked if she will be doing any Creek Dippers songs at her upcoming Big Sur gig, Williams pauses for a second.
“It’s terrible, this breaking up business,” she says with that sound of hopelessness all of us who have loved have felt.
But the conversation becomes more cheerful as I tell her about the venue she will be playing this Saturday night. When I tell her that there is a river behind Fernwood, she responds with “ohhh la la.” But she gets most excited when I talk about the albino redwood located in Fernwood’s campground.
It reminds me of something she said earlier in the interview about Frank Sinatra. Williams says that when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis the legendary singer sent her a personal check for 1,000 dollars. As a thank-you, she responded by sending him a painting that she made while her hand was being overtaken by her debilitating disease. She says the painting probably wasn’t much, due to her physical state at the time, but that she just felt better knowing that caring folks like Sinatra exist in the world.
And that is exactly the reason why Williams is such a respected singer/songwriter. She is able to take the pains from her life and instill them with hopefulness. That is why her fans are glad that a person like Williams exists in the world. As she sings while covering the Van Heusen and Tommy Burke pop standard “Imagination” on the 1995 live album This Moment, “Imagination is funny, it makes a cloudy day sunny.”
Victoria Willams plays Fernwood Bar, 24 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, Big Sur on Saturday, April 30 at 8:30pm. $13/advance. 667-2422.