Last Friday night, singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams and her band, Buick 6, played in Chapel Hill, North Carolina: one stop on a tour that will bring them to the Bardavon on Sunday evening, October 11. After the Chapel Hill show, she met Bill Ellis, a teacher and music historian, and had a long conversation with him and two creative writing professors about her Dad, poet Miller Williams, who passed on in January.
“Bill is an amazing man. We were talking about the roots of music, and I was so comfortable, talking with them about my Dad and me,” says Williams. “Tears welled up. The three of them reminded me of my Dad’s friends from academia, that whole world. When I was about 15 or 16, I met James Dickey [author of Deliverance]. He was tall and big and he’d say, ‘Goddamn, Milluh’ – that’s the way he said my Dad’s name, M-I-L-L-U-H, in his big, deep voice,” spelling it out in an exaggerated Southern accent. “I got so much from my father, so much from them, from that time in my life and the people who were around then. They’re all gone now…”
To her great joy, the conversation with Ellis sparked discussion of an archival project about her and her father. Students at the university will help to organize a motherlode of photos and letters that Williams has collected over the years. “I’ve been wanting to do it. It’s so overwhelming, but that’s what they do.”
Williams’ father, Miller, a poet who taught at the University of Arkansas and published more than 30 books, delivered the poem at President Clinton’s second inauguration. He and Williams’ mother, a concert pianist, frequently moved around the Southern states; and during Lucinda’s growing years, her parents welcomed students and artists of all types into their home. These informal salons offered a rare opportunity to absorb, as easily as breathing, many influences and styles of creative expression: Her father’s friends included such luminaries as Dickey, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Bukowski and country singer George Jones. One of her father’s students introduced her to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited: a turning point for the nascent singer/songwriter and her first exposure to a format that wedded her two loves, music and writing.
Williams and Buick 6 are touring to present the music from her 2014 release Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. In this first offering on her own label, Highway 20 Records, she paints a lush, densely emotional musical landscape propelled by evocative laser-vision lyrics that capture the vulnerabilities that all of us face in our journeys through a lifetime. From the aching needs and intensity of “Burning Bridges” to her growling twang in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” the 20 tunes are accented by her bluesy, won’t-be-fooled womanliness. Her singing is sometimes raw, sometimes sweet, always perceptive and true. Williams writes from a soft underbelly of mature, keen wisdom, and she isn’t shy about revealing it.
“I feel so vulnerable. I haven’t grabbed onto this whole concept of ‘This is the best time of your life’ yet,” she confesses. Separate from her positive feelings about where she is in her career, Williams, at 62, writes to come to terms with her sharp awareness of life’s passages. “My career satisfaction isn’t because of the age I am, because that can happen at different ages. I read all this stuff about ‘This is the best time of your life, you should be enjoying the golden years’ and all that. But I feel sad a lot of the time. I think about what I said to [my parents], what I wished I’d said to them, that I wasn’t there with them when they passed on. I’m looking back.”
“So, I write songs about it,” she continues. “Things pop into my head and I write them down. I have a lot of works-in-progress, and when I’m in my hotel room with my guitar, I’ll work on them. The other day, the phrase ‘bad blood’ came to me, and I started thinking about family members through the centuries: about drama, about people that didn’t get along, that there was ‘bad blood’ between them. And I said, ‘Okay, ding, ding, ding’ – a whole song could come from those two words. It’s a nugget or a seed.”
These days, her creative wellspring includes her father’s poetry, too. When she was younger, she used him as a sounding board for her songwriting. “The last time was before recording one of the songs I wrote for my sixth release, Essence (2001). He said, ‘Honey, this is as close to perfect as you’ve ever come,’ and I said, ‘You mean you have no suggestions? Does that mean I’ve graduated?’ It’s interesting now, and bittersweet. I turned one of his poems into my song “Compassion” for my current release, and another one of his poems, “Dust,” is on my next album. It’s an ironic thing, being pulled to take his poems and create songs from them. His spirit is very much alive in what I’m doing now,” she says. Another tune, “Temporary Nature (of Any Precious Thing) includes one of his lines, “The saddest joys are the richest ones,” and it suits her music well.
Of songwriting she says, “When I was younger, I used to get real anxious and think, ‘You’re all dried up,’ but over the years, I’ve developed my own process, my own way of writing. Some people have written thousands of songs – and I’ve accumulated a certain number of songs – but, for me, it’s about the quality, not the quantity. I’ve gotten over that hump now. The last time we were in the studio recording songs, we recorded some I’d written a year or two before, and some new songs. It doesn’t matter where they came from. We got about 35 songs of material, and a lot of them are on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. We’re already ahead of the game for the new album, which will come out in January.”
Her 2014 release, dubbed country soul, traverses universal internal terrains: heartache, longing, family odysseys, change, love, death and all else that makes us human. But, with three Grammy Awards in three different categories – Best Country Song (for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 1994 cover of her tune, “Passionate Kisses”), Best Contemporary Folk Album (for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, 1998) and Best Female Rock Performance (for her song “Get Right with God,” an up-tempo alt/country gospel/rock tune on her album Essence, 2001) – it’s fruitless to try to pin a hard-and-fast style onto Williams. And that’s as it should be, for an artist who continues to evolve and stretch into new territory.
After years of “bouncing from label to label to label,” Williams relishes the freedom inherent in owning her recording label. “We can do a double album. We can do songs that aren’t two minutes long. On the next album, we did a gospel/blues tune of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s with a reggae drummer and a conga player, plus my bassist David Sutton and Bill Frisell on guitar. It’s so John Coltrane, like ‘A Love Supreme,’” she laughs. “It went on and on, and afterwards, we were all just sitting there listening and saying, ‘Wow, it’s long, but we’re gonna leave it the way it is. It’s gonna be on the damn album.’ It’s like 19 minutes long!” she laughs, “and we’ll have a second CD again because of that song, even though we didn’t want to do another two-CD release.”
These days, Williams feels fortunate to have met and married her soulmate, Tom Overby, who co-produced Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, with her and Greg Leisz. And she’s happy to have a great fanbase, to be making a living from music, to travel in a tour bus instead of a van and to be surrounded by a great crew.
“Everything feels steady. I like the security of it, and that I can afford to own a home. When I’m not on the road, I like to connect with friends, go out for dinner with them and drink a nice bottle of wine. Friends are so important to me. And I like to go out to hear other bands in smaller venues. I keep things pretty simple,” she says, adding, “I like reading, crossword puzzles, shopping for shoes online…” What does she like to read? “Biographies, memoirs, true crime, psychological thrillers and all the great Southern writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers – the ones that inform you about life.”
All the great Southern writers…I’d add Lucinda Williams to that list.
Lucinda Williams with Buick 6, Sunday, October 11, 7 p.m., $69/54/49, Bardavon 1869 Opera House, 35 Market Street, Poughkeepsie; (845) 473-2072.