In 1993, Shreveport singer-songwriter Victoria Williams became famous after Soul Asylum, Pearl Jam, Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed and other star musicians recorded an album of her songs.
Admired though not widely known, Williams had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the spring of 1992 during a tour with Neil Young. “Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams” raised funds for her treatment.
Like many artists and musicians, then and now, Williams had no health insurance. Musician friends, hoping to help cover the singer’s crushing medical debt, also played benefit concerts for her.
“Sweet Relief’s” renditions of “Crazy Mary” and “Summer of Drugs,” by Pearl Jam and Soul Asylum respectively, were especially popular. The Jayhawks, Michelle Shocked and the Waterboys also contributed songs to the album.
This month, Williams, a resident of Joshua Tree, California, since 1995, is performing a rare series of engagements back home in Louisiana. She’ll be accompanied by fellow Joshua Tree residents Lisa Mednick-Powell (formerly of the New Orleans-based Song Dogs), Powell’s husband, Kip, plus multi-instrumentalist Ryan Erskins. The group performs Saturday in Baton Rouge at Main Street Studios. They’re also playing in New Orleans, Monroe and Shreveport.
Paste Magazine ranked Williams’ first post-“Sweet Relief” album, 1994’s “Loose,” among the best albums of the ’90s. In 2006, Paste listed her among the Top 100 living songwriters.
Singing in a high, childlike voice, the stylistically unfettered Williams roams from down-home folk and country to Cajun-flavored songs to rhythm-and-blues to standards such as “Moon River” and “What a Wonderful World.”
Williams’ original material, including the narrative “Tarbelly and Featherfoot” and “Summer of Drugs,” shows her gift for depicting places and characters.
Williams’ Louisiana tour isn’t part of a campaign to promote a new album. The grassroots trek grew from an invitation to play a return engagement at Fairfield Studios in Shreveport.
“This is really just about playing with some friends,” she said last week.
Her early winter return to Louisiana is the singer’s third visit to the state in the past three months.
In December, she was in Shreveport to spend Christmas with her 84-year-old mother. In November, she visited New Orleans to attend birthday celebrations for Rickie Lee Jones, the singer who recently began living in New Orleans.
“It was like a three-day thing,” Williams said of Jones’ birthday celebrations. “We had a parade. And then Susan Cowsill loaned me her bicycle. So I was just riding Susan’s bicycle all over New Orleans.”
Williams has another New Orleans connection in Dave Pirner, lead singer of Soul Asylum and a longtime New Orleans resident.
“I love it down there,” Williams said. “When I was down there for Rickie’s birthday party, I was like, ‘Why I am living in California in the desert?’ I’ve got so much in Louisiana. I’ll probably move back. I’ve always wanted to live in New Orleans.”
Feeling well enough to perform these days, Williams recently signed a new songwriting publishing deal. She plans to begin recording songs for a new album following her current tour.
Williams believes making music has a therapeutic effect.
“It’s a healing thing,” she said.