Lucinda Williams is furious, and who can blame her?
It was only one week before our collective quarantine that Lucinda Williams’ new house in Nashville, Tenn., had part of its roof blown off by a tornado. Trees and fences were uprooted; the power went out. “The tornado and then the plague,” she tells me over the phone. “It’s almost biblical.”
In life as in song, Williams, 67, is an expert storyteller: It’s not hard to imagine the mess of our current reality cast as a blues-rock rave-up on her 14th album, “Good Souls Better Angels.” She has been releasing records since 1979 — spooling Southern-gothic narratives over the blend of rock and country now known as Americana — but she’s never sounded so fiercely political, and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate.
“They just keep f— up more and more,” Williams says of the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a sentiment echoed in her new songs like “Bad News Blues” and “Man Without a Soul.” “I don’t think anybody has seen anything like this in their lifetime. … And you’ve got to say something.”
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“Good Souls Better Angels” is unsparing. “You’re a man bought and sold... You bring nothing good to this world,” Williams seethes on “Man Without a Soul,” though she’s quick to note that we shouldn’t limit this indictment to the president — “it could be about [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell too.” She and her band storm through blown-out psychedelia and raw garage rock as furious as our dire circumstances demand.
“I always wanted to be able to write really good topical songs like ‘Masters of War’ or ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’,” she says, invoking two Bob Dylan protest classics. “And it’s hard. I find it much easier to write an unrequited love song than to write about what’s wrong with the system and how we’re getting screwed.”
Speaking truth to power with blistering candor only adds to Williams’ relevance. She may be decades removed from her late ’90s commercial peak — her 1998 masterpiece “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” was one of the most celebrated albums of its era — but Williams’ deep songbook continues to reach new generations.
“There’s still no one like her,” says 31-year-old singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield, who makes music as Waxahatchee. While recording her recent career-best fifth album, “Saint Cloud,” she had a photo of Williams hanging in the studio.
Williams’ story is one of resilience in the face of a music industry that has never fully understood her. Her voice — an elixir of blues, country, folk and honey — aches with a kind of cracked incandescence, with empathy. But it’s Williams’ songwriting itself — and the sheer magnitude of feeling she can conjure in a single phrase of restlessness, yearning, loss or betrayal — on which her legacy stands.
Crutchfield sees Williams “right at the table” with greats like Dylan and Leonard Cohen. “I love their music too, but I never saw myself in it,” Crutchfield says. “Lucinda has all of that ability and talent, but she’s singing about experiences that are so feminine.” She highlighted the resonance of 1988’s “Side of the Road”: “That song is about being a woman and an artist and prioritizing your creative process, prioritizing your autonomy and needing space,” Crutchfield said. “It’s something I relate to so much.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Williams’ first album of original material, the arresting Folkways collection “Happy Woman Blues.” For many, though, it was Williams’ 1988 critical breakout, and first masterpiece, “Lucinda Williams,” that marked her true arrival, as she traded traditional blues for ripping barroom rock. That record contained “Passionate Kisses,” one of her signature songs, about wanting not only kisses but also “pens that won’t run out of ink and cool quiet and time to think.” “Passionate Kisses” won Williams her first Grammy when Mary Chapin Carpenter covered it in 1992. It is also her most durable feminist anthem — “Give me what I deserve cause it’s my right!” — in a catalog with many of them.
For Williams, a deep attunement with her own emotions has come from a lifetime of introspection. Born in Lake Charles, La., she and her family lived in 12 different towns in the American South, Mexico and Chile before she turned 18. Williams’ father was the late poet Miller Williams, whose advice to “never censor yourself” in writing guided her. Her mother, Lucille, was a frustrated pianist who struggled throughout Williams’ life with severe mental illness, which found her in and out of therapy and hospitals. It was a highly analytical upbringing. “My mother was brilliant and always talked about Sigmund Freud and books like ‘I’m OK — You’re OK’,” Williams said, but still, she added, “I had to learn how to survive emotionally.”
Her father was also a professor at the University of Arkansas — his mentor was none other than Flannery O’Connor — and at age 12, Williams heard Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” when a student brought it over to the house. Dylan’s combination of folk, rock and poetry changed her. “I decided I wanted to do that,” Williams said. “I set the bar pretty high for myself.”
The politics of “Good Souls Better Angels” are also, she says, “in my blood.” Her father’s side of the family were extremely progressive Southerners. Williams’ paternal grandfather was a union organizer, civil rights activist, socialist democrat and Methodist minister who ultimately left the church. Bernie Sanders, she said, reminds her of him.
“I was a little activist in high school,” Williams says. She read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” put a poster of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata on her bedroom wall and distributed boycott grapes leaflets at the grocery store. She attended anti-war demonstrations and felt the “rush” of linking hands with fellow protesters while singing “We Shall Overcome.” She got kicked out of her New Orleans high school for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. “I wasn’t really proud of the country,” Williams said, “and that hasn’t changed much.”
Williams’ songs have long grappled with strands of injustice. She wrote the “Car Wheels” classic “Concrete and Barbed Wire” after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it’s not lost on her that its narrative could as easily apply to President Trump’s proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico. “I started imagining these two lovers on either side of the wall, and one’s in prison, and they can’t get to each other,” she said. “Change the names of the towns to El Paso or Brownsville, Texas, and it could be about what’s going on now.”
She spent her 20s and early 30s moving between Austin, Texas, Houston, New York and Los Angeles, busking, waiting tables, working at a record store, all while honing her craft. But the music industry eluded her. She did not have many obvious peers. (Later, heroes like Chrissie Hynde and Elvis Costello would become friends.) Williams remembers an Elektra label rep telling her that the problem with her songs — future highlights like “Changed the Locks” and “Pineola” — was that they “didn’t have bridges.”
“We got done with the meeting, and I went back to my little apartment and got out my Neil Young and Bob Dylan albums, just to remind myself, ‘OK, don’t get disheartened.’ I listened to two of my musical heroes and said to myself, ‘Well, not all their songs have bridges either.’”
It wasn’t until the English indie label Rough Trade came across her demo and released her 1988 self-titled record that she caught a break. “It took a European punk label to get me, which tells you a lot,” she says.
Williams learned early to protect her vision from overbearing men. When she recorded “Happy Woman Blues” for Folkways in 1980, she chose to omit drums. The engineer went in without asking and overdubbed drums atop much of the record. “That was my first major experience in the studio working with... you know, it was always guys,” she says. “At the time, I thought: ‘Really? You controlled me to that extent?’”
Though Williams’ music never quite reached the era-defining appeal of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” again, that record and the stability that followed signaled a shift in her confidence. In the last decade, since the launch of her own Highway 20 label, her records have grown more daring, and “Good Souls Better Angels” is her best in years. She recorded with her longtime backing trio, Buick 6, as well as engineer and co-producer Ray Kennedy, with whom she last worked during “Car Wheels.”
Amid the new album’s political righteousness, its highlight is “Big Black Train,” a quavering reflection on tidal depressions and how they can sweep you away. “I don’t wanna be no special rider,” Williams croons. “I don’t wanna get on board.”
Williams has herself struggled with anxiety and depression. “Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to not feel that way: What does complete happiness feel like?” she says. “I think it’s hard to be in this world without experiencing some kind of depression.”
“Big Black Train” is one of a number of new songs on which Williams shares a writing credit with her husband and manager, Tom Overby. Music history is filled with songs about trains. Williams questioned what might be left to say. “It basically says the opposite of what all the other train songs say, which is, ‘I’m gonna get on that train,’ where the train represents freedom,” she says. “It takes that and turns it on its head.” She says she cried while recording it.
Williams knows that some of her new songs might alienate certain listeners. But she felt a visceral need to express them. The scorcher “Wakin’ Up” chronicles the domestic abuse she experienced during a year-long relationship (before she met Overby, whom she married in 2009). The man was a recovering addict who relapsed after moving in with Williams. And he could be violent.
While Williams has sung of toxic relationships before, like on the foreboding “Car Wheels” ballad “Greenville,” she calls “Wakin’ Up” the “farthest out” she’s gone. In harrowing detail, Williams recalls the night everything came to a head, when she escaped: “He pulled the kitchen chair out from under me / He pulled my hair / And then he pissed on me / Next thing I swear / He wants to kiss on me.”
“All the stuff I say in that song really happened,” she says. “You gotta get that out of your system, otherwise it makes you sick — it turns into a disease.” After the experience, “I now totally understand the battered women’s syndrome,” she says. “You just kind of numb yourself.” “Wakin’ Up” evokes both the paralysis and the flight, gathering strength with each note.
Releasing an album during a global pandemic was never her plan, but Williams is adjusting. She has spent most of the last four years since 2016’s “The Ghosts of Highway 20” on the road, and now, in lieu of concerts — her soonest shows are scheduled for mid-July —she’s filmed a number of live sets at home. She has also recently been working on a memoir with writer Sam Stephenson.
Williams and Overby moved to their house in Nashville from L.A. in February. They have been staying home, ordering delivery, catching up on Netflix. Like anyone, she’s mostly stressed by the uncertainty of the moment. She’s found it a bit difficult to focus. And she’s trying to stay off Facebook.
Quarantine will, of course, present a huge obstacle for any artist with a record to promote. But Williams’ music has persevered through decades of systemic marginalization. Lockdown and time are not tempering her.
“I remember my dad saying that in the world of poetry, you don’t really get respect as a writer until you’re in your 60s at least. Age is irrelevant in that world,” Williams said. “My art is going to continue.”
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