The rap on Lucinda Williams has long been that she's a gifted songwriter " perhaps the finest of her generation " but also a maddening perfectionist and control freak.
There's a perfectly good explanation for such exacting behavior, said Williams, who takes the stage Thursday night at Diamond Ballroom.
She points to one of her earliest experiences in the recording studio, a folk album she cut back in 1980 for Smithsonian Folkways. On the final day of recording, Williams discovered that the engineer had added drums to all the tracks without consulting her first.
"It doesn't seem like a big deal now, but at the time I was pretty horrified," she said with a flustered laugh. "It was my welcome to the music business. To make matters worse, he absconded with the money and left town without paying the studio."
But Williams makes no apologies for her musical meticulousness.
"I'm one of these people who, when they're in there (recording), I'm very deliberate. But a lot of artists are. I don't know why I got singled out," she said. "Whatever it takes to make it good, you know?"
She should know. Her seamless fusion of country, blues, folk and Americana has produced some of the most mesmerizing music of the past 30 years.
She first attracted widespread notice in 1993, when Mary Chapin Carpenter scored a crossover hit with Williams' song, "Passionate Kisses." Five years later, Williams released her "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" to rave reviews. The album went gold and snagged the singer/songwriter a second Grammy (the first being for "Passionate Kisses"). Her 2001 follow-up, "Essence," garnered critical praise and a third Grammy.
The daughter of celebrated poet Miller Williams, her stripped-down musical soundscape and lyrical obsessions " unrequited love and broken relationships " yield the raw catharsis of a summer thunderstorm. No wonder, then, that Time magazine in 2002 dubbed her America's best songwriter.
Her most recent effort, "Little Honey," marks her 10th album since 1979, and perhaps her most upbeat, at least by Lucinda Williams standards. A handful of tracks, particularly the steamy blues come-on of "Honey Bee" and the lilting romanticism of "Plan to Marry," hint at an artist in a decidedly happier place these days. She even ends things with a rollicking AC/DC cover of "It's a Long Way to the Top." Some critics have suggested the comparatively sunny vibe reflects her engagement to ex-Best Buy executive Tom Overby.
Williams said she is amused by all the speculation.
"I think people look at my personal life and go, 'She's happy, she's in a committed relationship, so these are her happy songs and this is her happy album,'" said the 56-year-old chanteuse. "I guess because the album has a raucous, rock 'n' roll vibe to it, there's a feeling that it's joyous. I mean, happy is so relative, anyway. I don't think anyone's 100 percent happy all the time."
For Williams, the most critical factor on "Little Honey" was that she maintained an emotional honesty, whether chronicling the alcohol and drug addiction of "Jailhouse Tears" (a terrific duet with Elvis Costello) or the self-destructive Amy Winehouse clone who populates "Little Rock Star."
"You really have to be careful because you want to be compassionate and not judgmental," Williams said. "I'm able to do that because I can put myself in " I don't think I'd be able to write about things like that if I hadn't either experienced it, or been around it."
Lucinda Williams with Buick 6 perform at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Diamond Ballroom, 8001 S. Eastern Ave. "Phil Bacharach