“The Changer” Celebrates Thirty Years
The first time I saw Cris Williamson sing was in 1995. I had flown to Berkeley, California, for the 20th anniversary concert for Olivia Records and I fell head over heels for the songbird perched on the piano bench, singing lyrics that were elemental, spiritual—and all about me. And then I watched as 2,000 people rose to their feet and joined her on the chorus of “Song of the Soul” and I was hooked. For good. Irrevocably. “Why don’t you sing this song, why don’t you sing along, and we can sing for a long, long time,” the lyrics urged and we all did.
And still do.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Williamson’s groundbreaking album, The Changer and the Changed and she is celebrating this milestone with a national tour and a 30th anniversary special edition of the album that so many women and men point to as one of the most important in their collection.
The mythology surrounding the album and the creation of Olivia Records is well documented. In a radio interview in Washington, DC, in 1974 on what was the very first women’s radio show, “Sophie’s Parlor,” the talk was about sexism in the music industry and Williamson suggested that they start an all-women recording company. The very next day Olivia Records was born. The Changer and the Changed became a best-selling record for Olivia and one of the best-selling independent recordings of all time. It was the first record created, produced, and engineered by all women.
Thirty years later, this is still an awesome achievement. The music industry is no more women-friendly than it was when the idea of an all-women produced album brought derision and dismissive glances from just about everybody in the music business. Even now, one would be hard-pressed to find an all-women-run label or studio or album. Ani Difranco’s Righteous Babe Records comes close; it’s today’s testimony to those women who in the 70s sold albums from the back of their cars and created the network of women’s communities that is still part of Williamson’s tour schedule today.
But the singer-songwriter, the activist, the spirit healer, the teacher, the mensch, has not stopped. For the last thirty years Williamson has toured all over the USA as well as Russia, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. She plays at many festivals and was a headliner at last summer’s Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which also celebrated its 30th anniversary.
Since The Changer and the Changed, Williamson has gone on to release 18 more albums. When Olivia Records set sail out of the music business and into the luxury vacation cruise business, Williamson fought for and won back the rights to her own music. She founded her own record label, Wolf Moon Records, and her most recent release, Real Deal, has been praised for “wrapping Cris’s songs of life and spirit in delicate acoustic arrangements that really make the beauty of that voice shine through like a star on the darkest night.”
Spend an evening at her show and you soon realize that the music is only part of the story. She regularly urges her audiences to get involved in their communities—to take care of the people around them, to take care of each other. She often includes local artists in her concerts, and for her 30th anniversary tour, she has been using women’s choruses in each city. Our own Kansas City Women’s Chorus will perform at next month’s concert.
According to her biography, she is often considered a treasure, passed hand-to-hand, person-to-person. Her lyrics appear regularly in books and thesis papers. Her albums are part of the curriculum for women’s studies courses, and thousands of people who may not even know her name join their voices in “Song of the Soul” around campfires and in places of worship. Says the Boston Phoenix, “Williamson is a heroic character whose tireless activism continues.” She has appeared on a multitude of benefit records including “On a Winter’s Night” and “Legacy,” the late Michael Callen’s final project. On behalf of Native Americans, she has helped the weavers of Big Mountain, and performed with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, Floyd Westerman, and John Trudell on the Water for Life Tour. Real Deal includes “Waters of Spokane,” written to raise awareness of the devastating problem of polluted river water in Washington State.
In the last few years, Cris Williamson has combined touring with songwriting workshops. She says, “Now I teach songwriting because I want to live in a world of poets.” Attending one of her workshops is like church, graduate school, and really good therapy all rolled into one weekend. She teaches what she knows, allowing participants a glimpse into her creative process as she gently urges them to find their own. It’s like sitting at the feet of a master artisan, who turns out to be just like you—the best parts of you.
When her tour stops in Kansas City on Saturday June 17th at the Community Christian Church, Williamson will not be alone. She brings friends and fellow musicians Teresa Trull (who produced her last album, as well as the gorgeous and hauntingly heart-wrenching Ashes), Barbara Higbie, Julie Wolf, and Vicki Randle, who will be taking a break from her regular gig as part of the Tonight Show band.
Cris Williamson is a perfect example of an artist who has been able to create a career of integrity and honesty and who continues to influence the lives of women and men alike as she sings about the human condition and the threads that connect us all. As she said in a recent interview, “Look around you. Look behind you. There are people watching your life. Shouldn’t it make us all want to be exemplary?” It should. For thirty years, The Changer and the Changed has stood as a timeless record of what happens when women have the courage to change.
Cris Williamson In Concert June 17. For ticket information, call 816-691-8785 or willowmusic.org. Cris’s website is criswilliamson.org.