“It’s snowing outside!” exclaimed Lucinda Williams excitedly by phone yesterday. “I just now raised up the window blinds.”
The 63-year-old folk country singer lives in Los Angeles, but she spoke to me from the Manhattan hotel room where she and her manager-husband, Tom Overby, had been holed up for a few days, avoiding the freezing temperatures and awaiting the arrival of Williams’s band for an appearance tonight on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
Williams is coming off back-to-back tours of Europe and the Caribbean, where she just spent a few days motoring around on a ship called the Norwegian Pearl for the SiriusXM Outlaw Country Cruise. She’s on the road to promote her latest album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, which came out at the beginning of the month, and which is, itself, about a road: namely the stretch of interstate that connects the towns Williams lived in during her itinerant childhood traveling the Deep South with her beloved poet father, Miller Williams. It’s also about her father’s death, last January from Alzheimer’s disease. And, though Ghosts comes on the heels of 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, Williams calls it a sort of spiritual follow-up to her 1998 breakout album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which both won her a Grammy and inaugurated her as the official bard of a certain kind of hardscrabble Bible Belt upbringing.
Williams has been in this business for something like four decades—Ghosts is her 11th studio album—but she tells me she’s “a little anxious” about playing Colbert, whose show she hasn’t watched. “I’m usually out of the house, you know? I’m usually just not sitting in front of the TV,” she says. “I get anxiety anytime I have to do TV and photo shoots. You gotta figure out what you’re going to wear, do the rehearsal, get your hair and makeup done, be on time for the taping, hope you don’t make a mistake.”
I’ve been such a Lucinda Williams superfan for so long that it’s disconcerting to hear her discuss topics as mundane as the weather and logistics in the same husky, heavy-tongued voice she uses to sing her blues. But when we get to talking about her excellent new album, I find her just as plainspoken, sensitive, and raw as I’ve always imagined.
The new album’s been out a couple weeks now. How are you feeling?
I feel great. It’s really gone beyond my expectations. It’s getting a different kind of response. It’s a different sound. Part of that is [guitarist] Bill Frisell: He adds this atmospheric vibe. And it’s the nature of the songs. There’s a certain depth to this album because of the loss of my father. That song, “If My Love Could Kill,” I wrote that about the Alzheimer’s that killed him. I was doing an interview and this guy asked me, “Do you think about death a lot? It seems to me there are several songs about death on this album.” Those are the kind of questions I face. I said, “Well, I do now!” I lost my mother in 2004, my dad a year ago, January 1. I just turned 63. So, hello! We all go through that. It’s still so taboo, though.
To talk about death.
Yeah. First we got over the sex thing. Now it’s mental illness and death.
I was struck by “Dust,” which I know is an adaptation of a poem by your dad. The chorus, where you sing “Even my thoughts are dust,” sounds like it could be about Alzheimer’s, too. Are those his words or yours?
It’s completely coincidental. I can’t remember if I wrote the song right before he passed away or after. My husband, Tom, actually suggested the poem. I love the way it came out. It’s very lush. But neither one of us was thinking about the connection with Alzheimer’s. I think my dad was maybe in his 30s or 40s when he wrote it. But yeah: “Even my thoughts are dust.” I mean, wow. I just love that line.
Do you feel the urge to collaborate with your dad more now that he’s gone?
Yeah. He never heard “Dust,” which makes it all the more powerful every time I perform it. “Compassion” was the first poem of his I was able to make into a song. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time. I think I’ve figured out the method, at least for the short, concise poems. You can’t just throw a melody on it. There has to be some kind of refrain. It proved to me that there’s a difference between poetry and songwriting. My dad was always debating that with his creative writing students, whether Bob Dylan was just a songwriter or a poet, as if being a poet was some kind of higher calling. My dad used to say, “No, he’s a songwriter. He’s not a poet.” They’d say, “But listen to his lyrics!”
There’s the word ghost in the title of this album, and there are so many ghostly presences in the songs. When you wrote these songs, did you think of it as exorcising ghosts? Or is it more about holding those memories close?
I think it’s a little bit of both. [laughs] You’re going to laugh at this. [An interviewer] asked me if I believe in ghosts. I had to explain to him: “Okay, the ghosts are kind of like the memories, it’s like memories have spirits.” So, yeah: I’m trying to exorcise something. And it’s also just about going back. Highway 20 runs through these towns I grew up in. I realized it a few years ago when I went to play in Macon, Georgia, at the old Cox [Capitol] Theatre where the Allman Brothers spent a lot of time. It amazed me how little Macon had changed. It’s where my dad took me when I was about 5 years old, to see this blind preacher street singer by the name of Blind Pearly Brown. It’s where we were living when my dad took me with him to meet Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, nearby. Before that we lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where my brother was born; Jackson, where my sister was born, where my dad taught at Millsaps; Monroe, Louisiana, where my mother grew up and where she’s now laid to rest. After I played in Macon, as the bus was going down the freeway, I kept seeing exit signs for these different towns.
Do you want to move back? It’s been a long time since you’ve lived there.
Yes, absolutely. But it’s not the same. Sometimes I have fantasies of living in Oxford, Mississippi. Sometimes I think of living in Milledgeville, where Flannery O’Connor lived. I don’t think it’s realistic. There’s always Nashville, where I lived for a long time in the ’90s. It was still pretty conservative then. Tom and I have been spending more time there. It’s grown in a good way. It still has some of its charm. I got really angry about it before, when I was living there, when the changes first started coming. I used to refer to the rich people from Dallas who tore down all the kitschy old Southern stuff down near Music Row. I think they were embarrassed by it. They built this roundabout with a statue in the middle of it, commissioned some artist to build this sculpture that has nothing to do with the history of country music. It’s all these nubile, nude figures, pressing up against each other with their hands thrown to the side, like they’re dancing. A friend of mine went down for the unveiling: They pulled the sheet off and it got caught on one of the figures’ penises. That’s what was going on in the ’90s. Now there’s a whole fresh load of younger musicians. Everybody’s moving back.
You’ve put out so many albums in the past 20 years. Do you even get to spend much time at home?
Not lately! I had several months off a couple years ago. Nobody expected all of this, this flourish of songs, a double album, then this. I had a handful of stuff leftover that hadn’t gone on other albums, and then we did some covers, new songs. We were at a really good place to do that. We’d just signed with Thirty Tigers, where we have our own label. We started working with this guy David Bianco, who owns his own studio. It’s really homey, reasonably priced. We’d record for a while, go out, do some shows, come back, do more recording. A lot of spontaneity. We have that one track, “Faith & Grace,” the really long one. The original version is like 19 minutes long. We did a remix of it. We’re going to release that by itself, completely remixed, on Record Store Day.
We wouldn’t have been able to do what we did, putting the double album out and then this one, if we’d been on another label. When I was still on Lost Highway, I was doing songs for the West album, right after my mother passed away. People talk about my being prolific: It actually started about 10 years ago. I was writing a bunch, demoing songs in the studio. I ended up with enough for a double album, but Lost Highway didn’t want to do it for business reasons. That’s really where it all started. Major changes in my life.
You mean after your mother’s death?
Yeah. And I was in a horribly abusive relationship when she died. It’s like, Wow, I think I’m going to get involved with this guy who lives in a sober living house. You know what? News flash! Don’t date anyone who’s living in a sober living house. They’re not ready to live in the real world. God, I was stupid. He ran out of there as fast as he could, into my world—toward the end of it he was shooting up and I didn’t even know it. I’m with him when my mother died. The word nightmare doesn’t even come close. I got out of that part of my life. I started writing a bunch of songs, Tom and I met, and that was the next big chapter. It’s been an interesting ride, that’s for sure.
Tom’s your manager and now your husband. It’s hard to be with a touring musician! I know from personal experience. Do you feel like it works because you work together?
I got lucky. Finally. It wasn’t until I was in my 50s. When we first got together, we weren’t able to travel together because Tom was working for Fontana Distribution, which was part of Universal Music Group. As fate would have it, my manager at the time died suddenly, Frank Callari. Tom was thinking about a career change. He’d already been coming in with ideas. We both jumped on board. We just have an undeniable respect for each other, which isn’t to say that we don’t have fights, but one of us always says we’re sorry.
It’s just one of those things. Every so often it does work. I wouldn’t want to be traveling around, a single woman right now. That would just be too hard.
You’ve talked a lot in previous interviews about your estrangement from your brother. Are you close with your sister?
We drifted apart for a while, but we’ve been back in touch. She lives in Indianapolis. My brother’s got some mental illness stuff going on. He’s probably not on his medications. He lives in North Hollywood, which is the neighborhood right over from us in L.A. He’s never met Tom. I haven’t talked to him or seen him in over 10 years. I sent him an email to tell him how much I loved him. He just wrote this little thing back that said, “I love you, too.” That was like a godsend. I know he’s alive at least.
Listening to “Place in My Heart,” I was thinking of your relationship with your brother.
That’s it. You got it. That’s exactly it. I’m so glad that came through. You’re the first person who saw that in there.
I love that song, I love the way that came out. That song “Are You Alright?,” that was for him, too. There’s another song that’s on the last album, “Wrong Number,” I wrote that with him in mind. And then there’s “Little Angel, Little Brother.” So, I’ve got about four or five of them.
Earlier when you spoke about traveling on Highway 20 and seeing the signs that pointed toward places you’d lived—it strikes me that they’re also the places in your songs. I grew up in Chicago and have basically no experience with the South. The towns I know are mostly the towns in Lucinda Williams songs. That highway maps your childhood, but it also maps your career.
Right. That’s the thing: Tom was encouraging me to write that song, “Ghosts of Highway 20.” That was the last song I wrote for the album. I said, “I’m not sure what to say that I haven’t already said, about the South and my childhood.” I’ve got “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” and “Bus to Baton Rouge.” The Louisiana song of course, on the new album. “Jackson.” He said, “Well, just see what you can do. Here’s a couple ideas I jotted down.” I looked at what he had, got my folder of songs that I keep around with bits and pieces, lines and whatnot, which is what I do when I sit down to write so I’m not just sitting looking at a blank piece of paper. I guess I’m now looking at it from a different perspective. [“Ghosts” is] almost like “Car Wheels” part two. “Louisiana Story” is kind of “Bus to Baton Rouge” part two. It’s just another chapter.
Everything keeps changing. I think that’s a good thing. It creates a new perspective. Something creative comes out of it. When I wrote “Car Wheels,” both of my parents were still alive, And when I wrote “Ghosts of Highway 20,” they were both gone. And my brother is gone, too, in a sense.
The road’s still there, though. So many things have changed, but there’s this through-line.
Yeah. Things change, but some things you don’t want to change. So I guess it’s like what you were saying before: It’s keeping things, keeping the memories, too.
Has it been particularly tough to perform this set of songs?
Well, the one I have trouble getting through is “If There’s a Heaven” because I wrote that thinking about my dad. And that song, “Death Came,” I actually wrote at some point after my mother passed away. It’s kind of like bookends almost.
I remember when my dad’s mother passed away, she was really old, but I’ll never forget: My dad said, “I’m an orphan.” I was struck by it.
That’s so interesting. As soon as I heard you say that, I remembered when my father’s mother died, he said almost the same thing. He said, “Now I’m the last in line.” There was no one above him in his family.
Do you feel like that now?
I guess, kind of. It makes you aware of your own mortality. It depends how close you were to that parent. My dad and I had a really special bond, from the time I was born. When my mother was going through her nervous breakdown, whatever it was, my dad would be carrying me, taking me with him places. He was really my rock. I can remember not even being able to think about when he wasn’t here anymore. I can remember saying, “Oh, I can’t even think about that.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.