By Mark Kemp
‘We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do . . . .’
—Miller Williams, “Of History and Hope”
At a gas station in Lake Charles, Louisiana, many years ago, Hank Williams Sr. told the great Southern poet Miller Williams that he had a “beer-drinking soul.” The plainspoken poet, who in 1997 would read his poem “Of History and Hope” at the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton, died early last year from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. On Father’s Day this past June, Williams’ daughter, Lucinda, posted a video to her Facebook page.
“Now we have a special presentation,” Lucinda Williams announces in the raw, homemade clip. She’s sitting in a straight-back chair in her father’s home, cradling a tattered Gibson J-45, a notebook open on a small table in front of her. Miller Williams, in a plaid shirt and khaki pants, sits nearby in a more comfortable chair. It’s September 2014, and he appears frail but surprisingly alert given his health.
“I wrote this song from Dad’s poem called ‘Compassion,’ and it wasn’t easy,” Lucinda says. “It made me respect even more what Dad used to say about the differences between poetry and songwriting.”
She turns to her father.
“Remember, Dad, when you used to have debates with your students about that back in the ’60s—when they all said Bob Dylan was a poet and you said, no, he’s a songwriter?”
Her father looks lovingly at his daughter, his eyeglasses reflecting light from a table lamp separating the two. “Well, Hank Williams told me he wasn’t a poet, he was a songwriter,” the poet replies.
Miller Williams then reaches for a faded book, opens it to a marked page, and begins reading: “Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it,” he intones in a voice that projects with the force of a man half his age, and then later, “You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
Lucinda capos her guitar at the second fret and follows with a musical performance of the poem—a hissy, lo-fi version of the same stripped-down arrangement she recorded for her stunning 2014 double-disc album on her Highway 20 record label, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.
There’s sadness in Lucinda Williams’ voice when she speaks of that day. “It was the last time that I went to visit with my dad,” she says. “It was a very touching moment.” The 62-year-old singer and songwriter has just completed another ambitious album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, which rings just as deeply and powerfully as its predecessor, but it’s moodier and more experimental.
On Ghosts, the three-time Grammy winner traces her Southern roots using as its loose narrative the 1,500-mile ribbon of highway—as Woody Guthrie would put it—that runs from Columbia, South Carolina, to the West Texas town of Kent. Williams has seen a lot of life along that Deep South route, and on this album, as well on previous ones, she’s sung about her memories and experiences in cities along the way. “I know this road like the back of my hand,” she slurs over the fuzzy guitars of the title track.
“We recorded several of the songs on Ghosts at the same time we recorded Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone,” Williams says. “They were some of the songs that didn’t make that collection but seemed to fit together. Then I wrote more songs for it later that also fit. But we still didn’t put everything on it. We cut a version of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’—the Lou Reed song—that isn’t on there. We thought it was going to be on there, but it just didn’t fit.”
Released in February, Ghosts is a long album, much like Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. It’s also a difficult album. Three of the 14 songs are mournful tributes to Williams’ dead parents—her mother died in 2004—and another song details both the serene and terrifying aspects of life for children in the South in the 1960s.
Williams’ acoustic strumming grounds several of the tracks, but others scream and holler, quaver and quake, with improvised electric guitars wrapping themselves, like octopus tentacles, around a rock-solid rhythm section. Her band stretches out on some epic jams, including the nearly 13 minutes of “Faith & Grace,” which finds Williams testifying over the din like a Southern preacher. On one song, “I Know All About It,” Williams experiments with the kind of gruff-but-playful jazz vocal phrasing you’d hear on a late ’70s Tom Waits or Rickie Lee Jones record. Williams transforms Bruce Springsteen’s “The Factory,” and puts her own music and emotional sensibility to two other writers’ words: “Dust,” another poem by her father, and “House of Earth,” an unfinished Woody Guthrie song. But if one song best pulls together all these ghosts on the highway—as Jim Morrison would put it—it would be the title track.
“Ghosts of Highway 20” was inspired by a trip several years ago to Macon, Georgia, where Williams attended grade school in the early 1960s. “I went there to play at the old Cox Theater downtown,” she says, “and downtown Macon has hardly changed at all.”
Being there brought back vivid memories from when she was five years old.
“My dad had taken me into downtown Macon to hear this guy named Blind Curley Brown, who was this preacher-blues street singer, kind of like Blind Willie Johnson,” she remembers. “It was my earliest exposure to that kind of raw Delta music—in the flesh. Those things really stay with you. They’re in your blood and in your soul. Sometimes they make you feel good and sometimes they make you feel sad.”
Sitting in her tour bus as it pulled onto the freeway after the show, Williams began noticing the signs. “I was looking out the window and I said to Tom [Overby, her husband and manager], ‘Wow, look at all those signs.’ We just kept passing all these exit signs: Macon and Atlanta; Vicksburg, Mississippi, where my brother was born; Jackson, where my sister was born; Monroe, Louisiana, where my mother was born and where she’s buried. And you know, I’ve sung about a lot of those towns in my other songs, but now here we were on this highway that runs through all of them, and I had this real sense of, ‘Wow, this is where a lot of my roots are!’ So, that was the seed for the song and for the album. It just seemed to connect things.”
Lucinda Williams has been connecting things in her songs since 1979, the year she released her debut album on Folkways Records—a set of blues covers called Ramblin’. The next year, she followed up with the all-original Happy Woman Blues, also on Folkways. That one included the first of many songs in which Williams would make reference to towns that were intimately familiar to her. In the lilting, acoustic-guitar-and-fiddle tune “Lafayette,” she sang of pretty boys and of dancing until 3 in the morning to zydeco king Clifton Chenier’s R&B-flavored Cajun and Creole sounds. “I gotta get back to my sweet Lafayette,” she lamented in the song.
Then everything changed.
Williams got stuck in a nearly two-decade-long battle with record labels. It took another eight years for her self-titled third album—which included “Passionate Kisses,” the song Mary Chapin Carpenter took to No. 4 on Billboard’s country chart—to arrive on Rough Trade Records. After that, Williams was beset by one frustration after another. “The ’80s and ’90s were just the roughest time for me,” she says. “I was on Rough Trade, and then I was on RCA, and then Chameleon, which was part of Elektra, and then they went under.”
She left RCA over an artistic dispute, releasing her third album, Sweet Old World, on Chameleon in ’92. “Then I went from Chameleon to American, Rick Rubin’s label,” she says. That’s the label Williams was on when she recorded her first masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which came out a full six years after Sweet Old World. “We had Car Wheels in the can, but it got held up for an entire year while Rick decided which distribution label he was going to go with.” She laughs at the absurdity of it all. “It was hard during that time.”
Williams, like few other artists, has achieved
the level of rock poetry that Dylan delivered
in the ’60s and ’70s. She’s that good.
The extended nightmare ended in the early 2000s, when Williams signed to Lost Highway and released another masterpiece, Essence. She’s been on a dizzyingly creative roll ever since, releasing World Without Tears in 2003, followed by a live album in 2005, West in 2007, Little Honey in 2008, Blessed in 2011, and now the double-whammy of Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone and Ghosts. Having now left Lost Highway, she released the two recent albums on her own Highway 20 label.
You could say her lost highway has been found.
Williams credits her prolific output in the new millennium to the security of having a regular label, but she says her sustained creativity is as much a result of the kind of confidence that comes with maturity. “Once I got to Lost Highway, I had more of a foundation,” she says. “But also, I just wasn’t afraid to take risks.” She points to a steamy track from World Without Tears, “Righteously,” which some listeners who expected a certain sound from Williams interpreted as an attempt to be cool. “There was this one reviewer who said he thought I was trying to be like Lil’ Kim,” Williams says, laughing incredulously. “And I remember someone telling me about this girl who thought I was a country singer, saying, ‘I used to like Lucinda, but I don’t like her anymore because she does this rap stuff.’”
What Williams was actually doing in “Righteously” was more like Bob Dylan’s talking- blues-inspired songs such as “Highway 61 Revisited,” although Williams employed shimmery guitars, feedback, and a funkier beat into her version of the style.
“You just have to not let that stuff bother you,” she says.
For the uninitiated, or the casual fan: Lucinda Williams is a Southerner, born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, raised in Macon and other Deep South cities, and blessed with a deeply pronounced drawl. She is not a country singer. Despite Rolling Stone’s listing of the decidedly un-country Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone among its 40 best “country” releases of 2014, Williams was never a country singer. No more than Dylan is a country singer. She’s more than a country singer. If a comparison must be made, Dylan would be the most apt. In her decades of writing songs, Williams, like few other artists, has achieved the level of rock poetry that Dylan delivered in the ’60s and ’70s. She’s that good.
Like Dylan, Williams has hopped from acoustic guitars to electric guitars throughout her career—some songs being purely acoustic, some purely electric, but most combining the two. She’s also dabbled in electronic music. On The Ghosts of Highway 20, her band stretches out on Grateful Dead-like extended improvisations, and Williams improvs vocally along with them. She’s never been a purist in any particular musical genre. What she’s a purist about is her poetry, her storytelling. The music merely provides the emotional—sometimes cinematic—backdrop. For instance, “Dust” evolves into a jam at the end that’s part-Allman Brothers and part-Dead, as guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz trade riffs around the dancing rhythm section of drummer Butch Norton and bassist David Sutton. In “Faith & Grace”—a “Walk on Gilded Splinters”-like bluesy dirge—Williams whines and moans and slurs about desperately needing to “get right with God,” as Frisell and Leisz pile on layers of dark, swampy textures over the song’s simple, mid-tempo beat. It’s Southern-gospel improvisation of the kind Williams has never before attempted on record, as she desperately and repeatedly pleads, “That’s all I need, that’s all I need, that’s all I need, that’s all I need—I need a little more faith and grace, we all need a little more faith and grace. . . .”
It’s a mind-bending spiritual-psychedelic experience that may have you hitting the repeat button on your sound system over and over.
“That was really all very organic,” Williams says. “We played everything live. I would play the song for them, then we’d get in the studio and everybody would sort of find their parts, and then we’d just kind of start playing. Sometimes I’d play guitar, and then once they kind of caught on and we got into a groove, I’d just set the guitar down, so I could concentrate on singing. If the guys wanted to keep going and going at the end, that’s what they would do.”
“I actually didn’t think the really long, 13-minute whatever-it-is [“Faith & Grace”] was going to be on the album. It’s just this thing we did that was based on ‘Just a Little More Faith,’ which had been recorded by Mississippi Fred McDowell. But then Tom said, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s gonna be on there.”
It makes sense that Williams’ playful and enigmatic vocal phrasing on “I Know All About It” would recall the jazz-based beat rapping of early Rickie Lee Jones. That’s because Williams wrote the song in 1980, just a year after Jones’ beatific debut album introduced the world to such beatnik barflies as Chuck-E (who was “in love”), Bragger, and Kid Sinister.
“Tom found that song in this big storage box of cassette tapes—he was going through them, trying to find a hidden gem or something—and he said, ‘Oh, my God, I love this song!’
“I said, ‘Really, that old thing?’
“And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s great! We’ve got to cut it.’”
It’s as though Williams’ vocals had to grow into the lyrics. “I’m a much better interpreter now; my voice is more mature-sounding,” she says. “I worked on the phrasing a little bit. I fixed it up, brought it up to my current standards. But other than that, it’s basically the same song.”
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Among the standout acoustic-based songs on Ghosts is “Can’t Close the Door on Love,” an uplifting song about loyalty (“Trust me, you can’t close the door on our love just because you make somebody cry / It ain’t no thing, it’s just a little teardrop”); the gorgeous “Place in My Heart,” with a melody reminiscent of “It’s a Wonderful World”; and “House of Earth,” the unfinished Woody Guthrie song.
“House of Earth” is also the title of a little-known book Guthrie wrote. “I researched it a little bit and learned that ‘House of Earth’ was meant to describe stucco houses,” Williams says. “Woody had never seen stucco houses before he went out to California, and I think he was going to go back to Oklahoma and tell everybody about it. That might be in his book—I don’t know, I’ve yet to read it. But he was so blown away by the stucco houses because, well, they wouldn’t blow away”—she laughs—“you know, like the houses in Oklahoma did every time there was a dust storm.”
Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, had sent the lyrics to Williams asking if she’d mind writing music for them. “She said, ‘As you can see, the nature of the song is quite different from other Woody Guthrie songs—it’s kind of racy!’ Somehow I think she knew that would make me more interested.” And what’s so racy about stucco houses? “Oh, it’s obvious he’s visiting a prostitute in the song,” Williams says. “That’s what Nora meant when she said it was kind of racy.”
An even darker acoustic-oriented song is “Louisiana Story,” which is at once wistful and devastating. Over woozy acoustic strumming and subtle electric tremolo, Williams casually delivers images of a faded, black-and-white Southern childhood (“In the Deep South, when I was growing up / Looking back on the sweetness, looking back on the rough / The sun going down, the crickets at night”) that become more menacing as the song progresses. By the end, she’s describing a child’s violent father who is “blinded by fear and the wrath of the Lord” and a mother who tells her menstruating daughter that she’s “unclean.” It’s classic Williams, able to see darkness and nostalgia in one fell swoop.
The most vivid ghosts on Highway 20, though, are Williams’ parents. She wrote two of the songs—the Dylan-esque “Death Came” and bluesy stomp “Doors of Heaven”—just before and after the death of her mother in 2004. In the former, she mourns (“Death came and took you away from this . . . gave you his kiss”), and in the latter she finds bittersweet peace (“Open up the doors of heaven, let me in / I think I’m finally tired of living”). After her father’s death on New Year’s Day of last year, Williams wrote the percussive “If My Love Could Kill,” in which she personifies Alzheimer’s disease as a “murderer of poems, murderer of songs.”
“We have memorized America / how it was born and who we have been and where,” Williams’ father wrote in “Of History and Hope.” His daughter has internalized those words in all of her work, but particularly in the songs on The Ghosts of Highway 20. “A lot of the stuff on this album is based on what’s been going on in my life,” she says. “There’s been a lot of loss, a lot of sadness.”
Senior editor Mark Kemp is the author of Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South. The photo at the top of this story is by Christopher Durst.