Lucinda Williams was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the daughter of poet and literature professor Miller Williams. Her father worked as a visiting professor in Mexico and Chile as well as different parts of the American South, before settling at the University of Arkansas. His daughter showed an affinity for music at an early age, and was playing guitar at 12. By her early 20s, Williams was playing publicly in Austin, Texas and Houston, Texas, concentrating on a folk-rock-country blend. She moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1978 to record her first album, for Smithsonian/Folkways Records. Titled Ramblin', it was a collection of country and blues covers. She followed it up in 1980 with Happy Woman Blues, which consisted of her own material. Neither album received much attention. In the 1980s Williams moved to Los Angeles, California (before finally settling in Nashville, TN), where -- performing both backed by a rock band and in acoustic settings -- she developed a following and a critical reputation. Nevertheless, it was not until 1988 that Rough Trade Records released the self-titled Lucinda Williams. The single "Changed the Locks", about a broken relationship, received radio play around the country and gained fans among music insiders, including Tom Petty, who would later cover the song.
Its follow-up, Sweet Old World (Chameleon, 1992), was a melancholy album dealing with themes of suicide and death. Williams's biggest success during the early '90s was as a songwriter. Mary Chapin Carpenter recorded a cover of "Passionate Kisses" (from Lucinda Williams) in 1992, and the song became a smash country hit for which Williams received the Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1994. Williams had garnered considerable critical acclaim, but her commercial success was moderate. Emmylou Harris said of Williams, "She is an example of the best of what country at least says it is. But, for some reason, she's completely out of the loop. And I feel strongly that that's country music's loss." Williams also gained a reputation as a perfectionist and slow worker when it came to recording; six years would pass before her next album release, though she appeared as a guest on other artists' albums and contributed to several tribute compilations during this period.