Lucinda Williams & The Ghosts of Highway 20

February 12, 2016 - table lamp

By Mark Kemp

‘We have memorized America,

how it was innate and who we have been and where.   

In ceremonies and overpower we contend a words,   

telling a stories, singing a aged songs.

We like a places they take us. Mostly we do . . . .

—Miller Williams, “Of History and Hope”

At a gas hire in Lake Charles, Louisiana, many years ago, Hank Williams Sr. told a good Southern producer Miller Williams that he had a “beer-drinking soul.” The plainspoken poet, who in 1997 would review his poem “Of History and Hope” during a second coronation of President Bill Clinton, died early final 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 a raw, homemade clip. She’s sitting in a straight-back chair in her father’s home, cradling a scruffy Gibson J-45, a cover open on a tiny list in front of her. Miller Williams, in a plaid shirt and khaki pants, sits circuitously in a some-more gentle chair. It’s Sep 2014, and he appears thin nonetheless surprisingly warning given his health.

“I wrote this strain from Dad’s poem called ‘Compassion,’ and it wasn’t easy,” Lucinda says. “It done me honour even some-more what Dad used to contend about a differences between communication and songwriting.”

She turns to her father.

“Remember, Dad, when we used to have debates with your students about that behind in a ’60s—when they all conspicuous Bob Dylan was a producer and we said, no, he’s a songwriter?”

Her father looks lovingly during his daughter, his eyeglasses reflecting light from a list flare separating a two. “Well, Hank Williams told me he wasn’t a poet, he was a songwriter,” a producer replies.

Miller Williams afterwards reaches for a faded book, opens it to a noted page, and starts reading: “Have care for everybody we meet, even if they don’t wish it,” he intones in a voice that projects with a force of a male half his age, and afterwards later, “You do not know what wars are going on down there where a suggestion meets a bone.”

Lucinda capos her guitar during a second tatter and follows with a low-pitched opening of a poem—a hissy, lo-fi chronicle of a same stripped-down arrangement she available for her overwhelming 2014 double-disc manuscript on her Highway 20 record label, Down Where a Spirit Meets a Bone.

There’s unhappiness in Lucinda Williams’ voice when she speaks of that day. “It was a final time that we went to revisit with my dad,” she says. “It was a unequivocally touching moment.” The 62-year-old thespian and songwriter has only finished another desirous album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, that rings only as deeply and strenuously as a predecessor, nonetheless it’s moodier and some-more experimental.

On Ghosts, the three-time Grammy winner traces her Southern roots regulating as a lax account a 1,500-mile badge of highway—as Woody Guthrie would put it—that runs from Columbia, South Carolina, to a West Texas city of Kent. Williams has seen a lot of life along that Deep South route, and on this album, as good on prior ones, she’s sung about her memories and practice in cities along a way. “I know this highway like a behind of my hand,” she slurs over a hairy guitars of a pretension track.

“We available several of a songs on Ghosts at a same time we available Down Where a Spirit Meets a Bone,” Williams says. “They were some of a songs that didn’t make that collection nonetheless seemed to fit together. Then we wrote some-more songs for it after that also fit. But we still didn’t put all on it. We cut a chronicle of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’—the Lou Reed song—that isn’t on there. We suspicion it was going to be on there, nonetheless it only didn’t fit.”

Released in February, Ghosts is a prolonged album, many like Down Where a Spirit Meets a Bone. It’s also a formidable album. Three of a 14 songs are deplorable tributes to Williams’ passed parents—her mom died in 2004—and another strain sum both a relaxed and terrifying aspects of life for children in a South in a 1960s.

Williams’ acoustic strumming drift several of a tracks, nonetheless others roar and holler, cower and quake, with makeshift electric guitars jacket themselves, like octopus tentacles, around a rock-solid stroke section. Her rope stretches out on some epic jams, including a scarcely 13 mins of “Faith Grace,” that finds Williams testifying over a hubbub like a Southern preacher. On one song, “I Know All About It,” Williams experiments with a kind of gruff-but-playful jazz outspoken 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 possess strain and romantic sensibility to dual other writers’ words: “Dust,” another poem by her father, and “House of Earth,” an unprepared Woody Guthrie song. But if one strain best pulls together all these ghosts on a highway—as Jim Morrison would put it—it would be a pretension track.

photo by David Minchin

photo by David Minchin

“Ghosts of Highway 20” was desirous by a outing several years ago to Macon, Georgia, where Williams attended class propagandize in a early 1960s. “I went there to play during a aged Cox Theater downtown,” she says, “and downtown Macon has frequency altered during all.”

Being there brought behind clear memories from when she was 5 years old.

“My father had taken me into downtown Macon to hear this man named Blind Curley Brown, who was this preacher-blues travel singer, kind of like Blind Willie Johnson,” she remembers. “It was my beginning bearing to that kind of tender Delta music—in a flesh. Those things unequivocally stay with you. They’re in your blood and in your soul. Sometimes they make we feel good and infrequently they make we feel sad.”

Sitting in her debate train as it pulled onto a turnpike after a show, Williams began seeing a signs. “I was looking out a window and we conspicuous to Tom [Overby, her father and manager], ‘Wow, demeanour during all those signs.’ We only kept flitting all these exit signs: Macon and Atlanta; Vicksburg, Mississippi, where my hermit was born; Jackson, where my sister was born; Monroe, Louisiana, where my mom was innate and where she’s buried. And we know, I’ve sung about a lot of those towns in my other songs, nonetheless now here we were on this highway that runs by all of them, and we had this genuine clarity of, ‘Wow, this is where a lot of my roots are!’ So, that was a seed for a strain and for a album. It only seemed to bond things.”

Lucinda Williams has been connecting things in her songs given 1979, a year she expelled her entrance manuscript on Folkways Records—a set of blues covers called Ramblin’. The subsequent year, she followed adult with a all-original Happy Woman Blues, also on Folkways. That one enclosed a initial of many songs in that Williams would make anxiety to towns that were closely informed to her. In a lilting, acoustic-guitar-and-fiddle balance “Lafayette,” she sang of flattering boys and of dancing until 3 in a morning to zydeco aristocrat Clifton Chenier’s RB-flavored Cajun and Creole sounds. “I gotta get behind to my honeyed Lafayette,” she lamented in a song.

Then all changed.

Williams got stranded in a scarcely two-decade-long conflict with record labels. It took another 8 years for her self-titled third album—which enclosed “Passionate Kisses,” a strain Mary Chapin Carpenter took to No. 4 on Billboard’s nation chart—to arrive on Rough Trade Records. After that, Williams was raid by one disappointment after another. “The ’80s and ’90s were only a roughest time for me,” she says. “I was on Rough Trade, and afterwards we was on RCA, and afterwards Chameleon, that was partial of Elektra, and afterwards they went under.”

She left RCA over an artistic dispute, releasing her third album, Sweet Old World, on Chameleon in ’92. “Then we went from Chameleon to American, Rick Rubin’s label,” she says. That’s a tag Williams was on when she available her initial masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, that came out a full 6 years after Sweet Old World. “We had Car Wheels in a can, nonetheless it got hold adult for an whole year while Rick motionless that placement tag he was going to go with.” She laughs during a stupidity of it all. “It was tough during that time.”

Williams, like few other artists, has achieved
the turn of stone communication that Dylan delivered
in a ’60s and ’70s. She’s that good.

The extended calamity finished in a early 2000s, when Williams sealed to Lost Highway and expelled another masterpiece, Essence. She’s been on a dizzyingly artistic hurl ever since, releasing World Without Tears in 2003, followed by a live manuscript in 2005, West in 2007, Little Honey in 2008, Blessed in 2011, and now a double-whammy of Down Where a Spirit Meets a Bone and Ghosts. Having now left Lost Highway, she expelled a dual new albums on her possess Highway 20 label.

You could contend her mislaid highway has been found.

Williams credits her inclusive outlay in a new millennium to a certainty of carrying a unchanging label, nonetheless she says her postulated creativity is as many a outcome of a kind of certainty that comes with maturity. “Once we got to Lost Highway, we had some-more of a foundation,” she says. “But also, we only wasn’t fearful to take risks.” She points to a erotic lane from World Without Tears, “Righteously,” that some listeners who approaching a certain sound from Williams interpreted as an try to be cool. “There was this one reviewer who conspicuous he suspicion we was perplexing to be like Lil’ Kim,” Williams says, shouting incredulously. “And we remember someone revelation me about this lady who suspicion we was a nation singer, saying, ‘I used to like Lucinda, nonetheless we don’t like her anymore since she does this swat stuff.’”

What Williams was indeed doing in “Righteously” was some-more like Bob Dylan’s talking- blues-inspired songs such as “Highway 61 Revisited,” nonetheless Williams employed shimmery guitars, feedback, and a funkier kick into her chronicle of a style.

“You only have to not let that things worry you,” she says.

For a uninitiated, or a infrequent fan: Lucinda Williams is a Southerner, innate in Lake Charles, Louisiana, lifted in Macon and other Deep South cities, and sanctified with a deeply conspicuous drawl. She is not a nation singer. Despite Rolling Stone’s inventory of a decidedly un-country Down Where a Spirit Meets a Bone among a 40 best “country” releases of 2014, Williams was never a nation singer. No some-more than Dylan is a nation singer. She’s more than a nation singer. If a comparison contingency be made, Dylan would be a many apt. In her decades of essay songs, Williams, like few other artists, has achieved a turn of stone communication that Dylan delivered in a ’60s and ’70s. She’s that good.

photo by C. Elliott Photography

photo by C. Elliott Photography

Like Dylan, Williams has hopped from acoustic guitars to electric guitars via her career—some songs being utterly acoustic, some utterly electric, nonetheless many mixing a two. She’s also dabbled in electronic music. On The Ghosts of Highway 20, her rope stretches out on Grateful Dead-like extended improvisations, and Williams improvs vocally along with them. She’s never been a precisionist in any sold low-pitched genre. What she’s a precisionist about is her poetry, her storytelling. The strain merely provides a emotional—sometimes cinematic—backdrop. For instance, “Dust” evolves into a jam during a finish that’s part-Allman Brothers and part-Dead, as guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz trade riffs around a dancing stroke territory 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 wanting to “get right with God,” as Frisell and Leisz raise on layers of dark, muddy textures over a song’s simple, mid-tempo beat. It’s Southern-gospel invention of a kind Williams has never before attempted on record, as she desperately and regularly pleads, “That’s all we need, that’s all we need, that’s all we need, that’s all we need—I need a small some-more faith and grace, we all need a small some-more faith and grace. . . .”

It’s a mind-bending spiritual-psychedelic knowledge that competence have we attack a repeat symbol on your sound complement over and over.

“That was unequivocally all unequivocally organic,” Williams says. “We played all live. we would play a strain for them, afterwards we’d get in a studio and everybody would arrange of find their parts, and afterwards we’d only kind of start playing. Sometimes I’d play guitar, and afterwards once they kind of held on and we got into a groove, I’d only set a guitar down, so we could combine on singing. If a guys wanted to keep going and going during a end, that’s what they would do.”

She laughs.

“I indeed didn’t consider a unequivocally long, 13-minute whatever-it-is [“Faith Grace”] was going to be on a album. It’s only this thing we did that was formed on ‘Just a Little More Faith,’ that had been available by Mississippi Fred McDowell. But afterwards Tom said, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s gonna be on there.”

It creates clarity that Williams’ witty and puzzling outspoken phrasing on “I Know All About It” would remember a jazz-based kick rapping of early Rickie Lee Jones. That’s since Williams wrote a strain in 1980, only a year after Jones’ blissful entrance manuscript introduced a universe to such dissenter barflies as Chuck-E (who was “in love”), Bragger, and Kid Sinister.

“Tom found that strain in this large storage box of cassette tapes—he was going by them, perplexing to find a dark gem or something—and he said, ‘Oh, my God, we adore this song!’

“I said, ‘Really, that aged thing?’

“And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s great! We’ve got to cut it.’”

It’s as nonetheless Williams’ vocals had to grow into a lyrics. “I’m a many improved interpreter now; my voice is some-more mature-sounding,” she says. “I worked on a phrasing a small bit. we bound it up, brought it adult to my stream standards. But other than that, it’s fundamentally a same song.”

Among a standout acoustic-based songs on Ghosts is “Can’t Close a Door on Love,” an fortifying strain about faithfulness (“Trust me, we can’t tighten a doorway on a adore only since we make somebody cry / It ain’t no thing, it’s only a small teardrop”); a beautiful “Place in My Heart,” with a tune suggestive of “It’s a Wonderful World”; and “House of Earth,” a unprepared Woody Guthrie song.


“House of Earth” is also a pretension of a little-known book Guthrie wrote. “I researched it a small bit and schooled that ‘House of Earth’ was meant to report mortar houses,” Williams says. “Woody had never seen mortar houses before he went out to California, and we consider he was going to go behind to Oklahoma and tell everybody about it. That competence be in his book—I don’t know, I’ve nonetheless to review it. But he was so blown divided by a mortar houses because, well, they wouldn’t blow away”—she laughs—“you know, like a houses in Oklahoma did each time there was a dirt storm.”

Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, had sent a lyrics to Williams seeking if she’d mind essay strain for them. “She said, ‘As we can see, a inlet of a strain is utterly opposite from other Woody Guthrie songs—it’s kind of racy!’ Somehow we consider she knew that would make me some-more interested.” And what’s so risque about mortar houses? “Oh, it’s apparent he’s visiting a prostitute in a song,” Williams says. “That’s what Nora meant when she conspicuous it was kind of racy.”

An even darker acoustic-oriented strain is “Louisiana Story,” that is during once sad and devastating. Over woozy acoustic strumming and pointed electric tremolo, Williams accidentally delivers images of a faded, black-and-white Southern childhood (“In a Deep South, when we was flourishing adult / Looking behind on a sweetness, looking behind on a severe / The object going down, a crickets during night”) that turn some-more ominous as a strain progresses. By a end, she’s describing a child’s aroused father who is “blinded by fear and a rage of a Lord” and a mom who tells her menstruating daughter that she’s “unclean.” It’s classical Williams, means to see dark and nostalgia in one fell swoop.

The many clear ghosts on Highway 20, though, are Williams’ parents. She wrote dual of a songs—the Dylan-esque “Death Came” and bluesy stomp “Doors of Heaven”—just before and after a genocide of her mom in 2004. In a former, she mourns (“Death came and took we divided from this . . . gave we his kiss”), and in a latter she finds bittersweet assent (“Open adult a doors of heaven, let me in / we consider I’m finally sleepy of living”). After her father’s genocide on New Year’s Day of final year, Williams wrote a percussive “If My Love Could Kill,” in that she personifies Alzheimer’s illness as a “murderer of poems, killer of songs.”

“We have memorized America / how it was innate and who we have been and where,” Williams’ father wrote in “Of History and Hope.” His daughter has internalized those difference in all of her work, nonetheless quite in a songs on The Ghosts of Highway 20.  “A lot of a things on this manuscript is formed 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 a author of Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South


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